In many ways the world we live in seems to have become more concerned with outward appearances than with substance, and the elaborate packaging in which most of the products on our store shelves is presented is one of the most obvious indications of this trend.
Packaging is of course necessary and functional – it protects products and allows for longer shelf-life, thereby safeguarding our health and raising our standard of living. It adds enormously to convenience, a priority in our fast-paced lives. And we, as consumers, require that it also be appealing, eye-catching, recognisable and attractive. In the beauty industry particularly, packaging can make or break a product.
Traditional plastic (cheap to produce and highly effective in protecting most products) is manufactured from non-renewable resources like oil, coal and natural gas – a definite no-no in ecological terms. It also seems to last forever, which is another major problem for our precious threatened environment. Packaging – most especially plastic packaging – makes up nearly a third of all non-industrial solid waste in most developed countries.
Clearly, caring about our planet means caring about what’s on the outside as well as what’s on the inside of the products we buy. The simplest and most environmentally-friendly option is to choose goods which come with minimal packaging. Those fancy boxes with pretty ribbons and jewelled decorations may catch our eyes and call to us from store shelves, but it’s worth stopping to consider how much of that elaborate excess will be going straight into the trash. Major cosmetic companies are beginning to reduce the weight and slim the shape of their bottles, tubes and jars, retaining the same volume of product content, while pharmaceutical manufacturers are working towards eradicating outer cartons and separate leaflets by displaying necessary information directly on bottles and jars. As eco-savvy consumers, we need to support such initiatives.
Another simple and fairly obvious way to reduce ‘packaging footprint’ is to buy products like shampoo, bath oil and body lotions in bulk and decant them into smaller re-usable containers. Instead of buying endless plastic bottles of water, rather carry a refillable glass or metal bottle – the healthier as well as the more environmentally-friendly option. And as your grandmother might have mentioned, you can even wash and re-use plastic bags and aluminium foil! In fact, with a little creative thinking, many packaging materials can be put to new use rather than just becoming garbage.
Which brings us to the question of recycling. Technically, many packaging materials are recyclable, but it is of course up to us to see that they are in fact recycled in the correct way. We need to get into the habit of organising our garbage into separate bins for glass, plastic, aluminium and paper and then taking these to designated areas for collection.
When choosing products to buy, remember that glass is the most eco-friendly form of packaging. It is endlessly recyclable and, compared to plastic, paper or metal, is the least toxic and the least damaging to the environment, as well as being highly effective in keeping contents dry and air-free. PET plastic, identified by the PETE 1 symbol and used to package food, drinks and other products, is recyclable, though it is manufactured using petroleum and other non-renewable resources and is therefore not sustainable practice over the long-term. A recent development is bioplastic, created using renewable resources like corn, tapioca, potatoes, sugar and algae, and totally biodegradable, compostable and recyclable. Identified by the BioPlastic symbol it is at least a step in the right direction.
To be environmentally responsible, we need to pay attention to product labels and know how to read and interpret them. The inclusion of the now-familiar recycling symbol on a label indicates either that the packaging is recyclable or that recycled material has been used in the manufacture of product and/ or packaging. But the symbol alone can be misleading; you should be a little suspicious, use your common sense, and read the whole label carefully. Buzz-words like ‘organic‘, ‘eco-friendly’, or ‘sustainable’ may not actually mean very much – packaging should be using renewable, biodegradable or compostable materials and if so, the label will probably specifically tell you. You can also visit a company’s website to check their commitment to environmental concerns. One brand whose eco-credentials are beyond question is The Body Shop, whose organic cruelty-free products are minimally packaged in sustainably recycled plastic containers.
We all want products which will help us look gorgeous, but increasingly we want those products also to be good for our bodies and good for the environment. Being conscious and mindful in the choices we make – including packaging – is one small step each of us can make towards caring for our planet.