Learn how to recycle empty magnificence merchandise

Molly Flores/CNN Underscored

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As a beauty editor, I inevitably collect copious amounts of products for work — and every few months, this leaves me with a hefty pile of empty or used products to dispose of. As someone who regularly recycles in my household, I actively try to cut through the greenwashing and find eco-friendly solutions to the waste. For beauty products, there are some obvious and not so obvious hurdles to jump through on the way to the recycling bin. In addition to purchasing clean beauty products, another way to make sure your beauty routine is sustainable is to recycle empty beauty products.

“Beauty packaging often contains a mix of materials (metals, plastic, glass) that are not accepted by municipal recycling curbside bins,” says Gigi Ganatra, vice president of corporate affairs at Nordstrom. Despite this fact, many products that you may think (or simply hope) can be recycled will end up in the recycling bin anyways — a practice that’s known as “wishcycling” that does more harm than good.

Overall, more than 120 billion beauty packages are created each year, and less than 10% of those ultimately get recycled (an oft-repeated statistic I found in my research). Now, many brands are taking action to improve this number and reduce the amount of beauty packaging that ends up in the landfill. This means there are more sustainable solutions and recycling options available to consumers, too.

Ahead, I’ll walk you through all the ins and outs of recycling beauty products, along with some of the programs I’ve found most helpful in giving my empties a second life.

With all of the tubes, pumps, bottles and jars, the question of “what is actually recyclable?” is totally valid — and unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer. Different cities have different rules when it comes to recycling. “Municipal recovery facilities (MRFs) are independent companies and as a result, have different sorting and processing capabilities,” explains Carly Snider, Pact program director. “A package or material type that might be accepted in one city might not be accepted in another, making it difficult for consumers to determine what to do with their beauty packages.”

On top of this, beauty companies may mislead consumers into thinking non-recyclable materials are recyclable. “The chasing arrows (the recycling triangle we all recognize) is a symbol that implies that the package is recyclable,” says Snider. “Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, as beauty stakeholders can use this on any packaging — even if it can’t be recycled.”

This is a larger issue that starts way before a falsely labeled product reaches the consumer, and the Environmental Protection Agency has been campaigning to put an end to the widely recognized recycling symbol on plastics that aren’t actually recyclable. Moreover, California recently enacted a “Truth in Recycling” law that sets statewide recyclable criteria and requires businesses to accurately label recyclables.

Before these changes become widespread, however, consumers must educate themselves about what materials are actually going to be recycled. “Beauty packaging that is most likely to be recycled are glass packaging (pending opacity), metal packaging and large format plastic packaging made of PET #1 or HDPE #2 — larger than 2 inches on more than one side,” says Snider. “All other beauty packaging has a very small chance of being recycled by MRFs because they’re usually too small (e.g. compacts), too flexible (e.g. squeezable tubes) or made of too many materials (e.g. fused layers or pumps) to be traditionally recycled.”

To this point, plastic containers marked with a number one or two within the chasing arrows — which indicates the type of plastic they are made from, not their recyclability (hence the bid to do away with the symbol) — are typically accepted through curbside recycling programs across the US. In New York City, all plastic bottles, cups, jars and jugs are accepted, regardless of the item’s “recycling number”. However, there are exceptions, with tubes used for cosmetics, toothpaste and more excluded from the city’s recycling program. So again, it’s important to check your local recycling guidelines before separating your empties — How2Recycle has some helpful resources and search tools for checking your area.

Sophie Shaw/CNN

An assortment of empty beauty products accepted by programs like Pact Collective and Terracycle, but not easily recycled through municipal channels.

Thankfully, there are companies trying to help consumers through this gray area of recycling. Some, like Junk Theory and Flamingo Estate, utilize eternally recyclable materials (namely aluminum) in their packaging, while others provide recycling programs to take the guesswork out of whether your empties will actually get a new life. Nonprofit organizations Pact Collective and TerraCycle are two of the biggest names in this effort, with major retailers like Nordstrom, Sephora and Credo, along with independent brands, either partnering with them or creating their own recycling programs. In terms of convenience and getting the job done with the least-headache-inducing process, I found these resources to be the easiest way to ensure my empties are being properly sorted and diverted from the landfill.

Hang in there, I’ll go into more detail about the specifics of these programs and what packaging they accept later on.

So once you’ve figured out which products are actually recyclable, you might need to clean the containers before you send them off. Aluminum and plastic packaging that will go into your household recycling should be rinsed out, just like you would with used food containers. If you are going through a program like Pact Collective or Nordstrom Beautycycle, there may be more stringent rules. For Pact, Snider says they must be completely clean. “Packaging with any goop left is considered contaminated and means they can’t be properly recycled,” she explains.

For Nordstrom’s Beautycycle program, however, Ganatra says that the products do not need to be 100% clean, “simply pouring or scooping out the product is sufficient.” Either way, check the guidelines for the specific program you choose.

Sophie Shaw/CNN

Preparing an empty product container for recycling.

I found that having a tool like these tiny cosmetic spatulas from Jenny Patinkin helped me reach the bottom of hard-to-reach products like foundation bottles or scrape out every last bit of product from jars. And if you do need to get your containers squeaky clean, giving them a good rinse and “letting your empties soak in a bowl of water can help you remove as much of the remaining product from the containers as possible,” Ganatra advises.

While there are a growing number of companies and brands that have recycling programs, these are the ones I’ve found most helpful based off of accessibility, ease and transparency.

With Beautycycle bins at all Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack and Nordstrom Local stores across North America, there are more than 350 participating locations. In partnership with TerraCycle, they accept an assortment of empty skin care, makeup and hair care products from any brand, not only those purchased from Nordstrom. This includes those super tricky packaging components like pump caps and spray triggers, flexible tubes, lipstick cases and more. Once the packaging has been collected, TerraCycle sorts, cleans and directs the materials to the proper recycling channels so they can be converted into other things like household items and building materials.

As of August 2023, the retailer has collected 50 tons of beauty packaging, marking a halfway point to reaching its goal of taking back 100 tons of beauty packaging by 2025. You can also shop Nordstrom’s sustainable beauty edit here.

Launched in 2023, Sephora’s Beauty (Re)Purposed program in partnership with Pact Collective saw more than 600 stores across the US and Canada install collection bins for recycling empties. As previously mentioned, Pact’s guidelines require the packaging to be cleaned and free of any liquid or product. You can bring in empties from any brand, so feel free to drop off drugstore favorites or indie labels, too. Sephora also has a curation of Clean + Planet Positive products on its website, so you can make informed decisions when looking for products or brands that use responsible packaging. Once a Beauty (Re)Purposed bin reaches capacity, the empties are sent to a Pact partner who determines the best use for the collected material. This could include mechanically recycling the material to be used for new packaging, carpet and more.

Credo is committed to sustainability throughout its business, and vets brands before they even land on the shelves. With Sustainable Packaging Guidelines enforced for its 130+ brand partners, it helps guide beauty in a more eco-friendly direction by eliminating single-use plastics, fostering relationships with trusted packaging suppliers and providing end-of-life solutions for used products. For the latter, Credo has partnered with Pact Collective to provide collection bins at all of its stores. Plus, you can earn Credo rewards points when you bring in clean empties to recycle, which you can redeem for new products (or this handy beauty empties bag to collect and transport your packaging).

A nonprofit that aims to educate and inform consumers about the beauty industry’s waste problem, Pact has a bunch of retail and brand partnerships that make recycling empties a breeze. Besides Pact Collection Bins in stores like Sephora, Credo, Ulta and more, consumers can also mail in their empties. This is a great option for those that don’t have an in-person beauty recycling bin nearby. There are some limitations, however, as you can only send in five to 10 products (that have been emptied and cleaned, and fit Pact’s recycling guidelines) at a time and it costs $8 to order the shipping label through Pact, which covers the shipping and recycling costs.

TerraCycle has over 100 free recycling programs, dozens of which are dedicated to beauty product packaging. With brand partners like Burt’s Bees, Paula’s Choice, Supergoop! and lots more, there’s a range of recycling options — each has its own guidelines, so be sure to check TerraCycle’s website before sending in your empties. While some of the partnerships accept any brand, others only accept a single brand. In addition, some may provide in-person collection bins at specific retailers, while others may only have mail-in programs (with a free shipping label). There are also options for notoriously difficult to recycle products and packaging like aerosols and even hair tools. The materials collected by TerraCycle go through sorting, cleaning and processing, so they can be sent to the appropriate third-party partners to be recycled into a new usable form.

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