Working towards a sustainable environment

Tonight’s (17 June) episode of the BBC’s War On Plastic will focus on single-use plastics in the bathroom, covering the stark environmental impacts of the packaging used for (and in) our toiletries and cosmetics. Here, edie explores what actions companies within those industries have taken to help solve the plastics puzzle.

One-third of the single-use plastic items found in the street sampled for the BBC show were for bathroom products 

One-third of the single-use plastic items found in the street sampled for the BBC show were for bathroom products 

After placing the so-called “Big Seven” supermarkets under increased scrutiny over their approach to packaging in last week’s episode of War on Plastic, presenters Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani will tonight be turning to plastics in the bathroom.

In their survey of 22 homes on an “average British street” in Redcar last week, the duo found that, of the 15,774 pieces of single-use plastic packaging amassed between the residents, around one-third (5,241) were bathroom items.

The finding comes at a time when think tanks have estimated that the global cosmetics and toiletries sector is producing 120 billion units of packaging a year – and that’s not to mention products such as plastic-stemmed cotton buds, wet wipes, individual dental floss sticks or sanitary towels.

In the wake of Blue Planet 2, which is credited with having piqued consumer awareness of the plastic pollution problem and kick-started a wave of anti-plastic activism, policymakers have implemented several pieces of legislation on reducing plastics in the bathroom. Last month, the UK Government confirmed that plastic-stemmed cotton buds will be banned from April 2020 – less than two years after its microbead ban came into force. And the EU recently approved similar and more wide-reaching legislation, in a bid to tackle all kinds of plastics commonly found to be despoiling beaches.

But what are businesses doing against this backdrop of policy changes and consumer demand? Here, edie explores the multi-faceted approaches being taken by some of the biggest toiletries and cosmetics brands.


As was proven to be the case with food and drink in last week’s War on Plastic episode, most firms within the toiletries and cosmetics space seem to be turning to recyclability in order to regain the trust of ever more plastics-focused consumers.

The past two years have seen the likes of Garnier, L’Oreal, Colgate Palmolive and Boots forging partnerships with multinational recycling firm TerraCycle. Under these schemes, consumers are encouraged to deposit plastic items which are considered ‘hard-to-recycle’ by their local authorities in drop-off points at retail hubs and community locations or to mail them back to TerraCycle individually. Collected items are cleaned, shredded and melted before being re-made into products such as fence posts and outdoor furniture.

More recently, TerraCycle partnered with The Body Shop to install recycling boxes in 672 of its stores globally, including 230 locations in the UK. Packaging deposited in these boxes is notably assessed to see whether it can be reused before being sent for recycling. 

On a broader scale, many of the world’s largest consumer goods firms with toiletry and cosmetics brands are now working towards a 2025 goal of ensuring that all plastic packaging is recyclable, compostable or reusable – either through WRAP’s Plastics Pact or as a standalone initiative. They include Unilever (owner of Dove, Lynx, Sunsilk and TRESEmme), Procter & Gamble (owner of Crest, Herbal Essences, Olay, Old Spice and Always) and Henkel (owner of Schwarzkopf and Dial).

Reusing and reducing

Given that just 9% of all plastic made to date has been successfully recycled, however – and with the scale of the problems associated with the developed world shipping its mixed plastics waste abroad to low-income nations without the capability to process it now being highlighted on TV – many consumers are now calling on businesses to go beyond recyclability and eliminate single-use plastics altogether.

In the supermarket space, this can be seen in TescoMorrisons,  Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Iceland all having recently launched or expanded ‘greengrocer’ schemes for packaging-free fresh produce. Waitrose & Partners has taken this one step further with the launch of its ‘Unpacked’ concept at one of its Oxford stores, where customers can choose from more than 100 lines of loose products, from pasta and pulses to wine and laundry detergent.

Plastic-free beauty routines are also becoming more popular. Lush this year opened its first plastic-free shop in the UK, following the success of similar stores in Germany and Italy. Located on Manchester’s Market Street, the ‘naked’ Lush branch sells products such as solid shampoo bars housed in reusable metal tins, bath bombs packaged in paper bags and lipsticks wrapped in wax. Its opening comes at a time when startups selling plastic-free grooming items, ranging from bamboo toothbrushes and biodegradable silk dental floss, to menstrual cups and ‘period-proof’ underwear are beginning to multiply at a pace.

For large multinational firms, however, this packaging-free approach has proven slow to pick up, with issues surrounding transport, quality and health and safety often touted as reasons for refusing to ditch plastics entirely.

Refill models, on the other hand, are beginning to gain serious traction. In January, 24 consumer goods and food and drinks firms revealed that they would support TerraCycle’s “Loop” platform, for example, whereby businesses will provide product refills while retaining ownership of their reusable packaging. Early supporters of the platform’s initial launch in New York and Paris include Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Colgate Palmolive, with Tesco set to spearhead a UK launch this autumn. 

Procter & Gamble is also offering refillable products through its Olay brand away from loop. In October, it will trial refillable pods for its Regenerist Whip moisturiser for a three-month period, before replicating the model more widely. Similarly, Estee Lauder this month confirmed that it will bring refillable packaging to market by 2025. 

Not enough

In spite of this increase in plastics-related action from business, recent WWF research concluded that the amount of plastics produced, littered and incinerated globally is set to rise “dramatically” by 2030.

The NGO claims that the next 11 years will involve a further 104 million tonnes of plastic “leaking” into ecosystems and the overall CO2 emissions generated through the plastic life cycle increasing by 50%, as plastic incineration trebles and alternatives are introduced before any unintended consequences are examined in full. 

For this trend to be reversed, WWF claims, policymakers, businesses and consumers must collaborate to “drastically change” their approaches to the issue.

The good news is that collaboration on plastics action seems to be becoming more common by the day, with numerous initiatives aimed at helping corporates collaborate on a pre-competitive level having launched since Blue Planet 2. WWF itself recently unveiled ReSource:Plastic – a  scheme aimed at helping businesses to translate their plastic reduction pledges into measurable impacts. Other similar schemes include the Plastic Leak Project, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy commitment.

The next episode of War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita airs on Monday 17 June at 9pm on BBC One.

edie’s Plastics Hub  

If you’re keen to find out more about this topic, edie runs a dedicated Plastics Hub – a content-driven campaign that will support sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics. Access the hub here and make your own plastics pledge here

Sarah George