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Plastic and the cosmetic brand.

July 12, 2017

“Today, an average person living in Western Europe or North America consumes 100 kilograms of plastic each year, mostly in the form of packaging”  Worldwatch Institute, Jan 2015. 

The outrage that was felt when somebody, somewhere realised that exfoliating micro beads were sometimes made from little pieces of plastic was bemusing to me and I wrote about it here and here.  If you can’t be bothered with reading either of those articles, in a nutshell I felt that focusing all ones attention on microbeads IN a product was somewhat trivial when compared to the amount of plastic used to make the bottles that many cosmetic products are packaged in.

299 million tonnes of plastic was manufactured in 2013, a 4% increase on 2012 figures (Worldwatch Institute) .  This plastic accounts for 4% of global petroleum consumption. 

While I’m not a cosmetic brand owner myself, I am a cosmetic brand producer of sorts. I formulate, manufacture small batches to get brands and/or new products started, send out test samples and buy materials.  Because of all of that I often find myself in a sea of plastic of all shapes and sizes and it bothers me.  Sure I recycle everything that it is currently possible to recycle but is that really enough and what happens to the recycled plastic anyway?

Between 22-43% of plastics end up in land fill and 10-20 million tonnes ends up in the oceans each year. 


I thought it was high time that I looked into all of this a bit more thoroughly and to also look into whether newer plastics like the polylactic and bamboo type plastics are actually solving any problems?


Plastic. What’s used now?

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate).


Cheap, lightweight, easy to recycle.

When it comes to product integrity over its shelf life PET does not give your product the best protection due to its relatively high oxygen permeability.  This article is a good little side-diversion into the problems manufacturers are facing in producing non-permeable (or less permeable) PET. Worth a read.

With regards to PET bottles, at least one of the manufacturers here in Australia has made a commitment to use recovered PET in new bottles at levels between 25-100% which is heartening as every bit of re-used plastic reduces the burden on virgin material.  This also goes for HDPE.

PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol). Recyclable under code 7.

Tough, high level of chemical resistance (alcohol, acetone solvents), more flexible in manufacturing (so more creative bottle types and shapes are possible)

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene).


Versatile, low risk of leaching into the product. Usually for harder packaging than the PET but not always.

Readily recyclable and hardy.  Far better at preserving product integrity than PET so best for cosmetic products that might perish from oxidation – Essential oils as actives/ aromas, Retinol products, Vitamin C serums etc.

Again at least one Australian packaging manufacturer has made a commitment to incorporate between 25-100% reused HDPE into new packaging.

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)


Tough and withstands harsher environmental conditions than PET.   Flexible plastic food wraps (such as Australia’s Glad Wrap) are made from this. Requires a high percentage of pthalates to plasticise (soften) it so is a potential source of pthalate contamination in a product if the product leaches into the packaging and vice versa.  This article from Choice contains more information. 

When it comes to cosmetics PVC is better than PET at protecting a product from oxidation due to its lack of permeability to oxygen.

LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene). 


This is a flexible plastic often used for tubes.  In this months ‘The Science of Beauty’ Magazine from the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists  Steve Welsh has an article on tubes. You might like to contact him for that by following this link.  LDPE is often blended with other materials to get the right mix of flexibility, stiffness and durability. It may also be lined with EVOH (Ethylene Vinyl Alcohol Copolymer) to improve oxygen permeability. As long as the tube has the recycling symbol it can be recycled.  The cosmetic brand owner/ formulator needs to specify the tubing requirements so as to protect the formula inside.

PP (Polypropylene) 

polypropylene recycling

This is great for hot fill products due to its high heat tolerance. This makes it great for balms, waxes and pomades. It also has a pretty good oxygen barrier and is often a hard pack so suitable for ridged jars.

PS (polystyrene)


OK so Polystyrene is not often used as a primary (or secondary) packaging material in cosmetics but it can often be used to help ship your ingredients around! Polystyrene often comes at you in those little cubes that stop your herbal extract bottles rattling around in the box during shipping.  Polystyrene is useful in as much as it can be made super hard and non-squashable yet ultra-light weight meaning it can fill those empty box spaces well without adding weight.  While it is recyclable it has something of a bad public image due to it often being used in disposable cups and take-away trays making it look cheap, nasty and polluting.  Also on a large-scale, its large volume to weight ratio (takes up lots of space, not very heavy) means it can be very un-economical to transport to recycling plants. , store or dispose of (into a skip bin). Companies such as Australia’s Brentwood are starting to address these issues.

Others including PETG and  Polylactic Acid. 

recycling 7

Polylactic acid is one of a newish breed of biopolymers, plastics made from vegetable starting points rather than petroleum.  As a stand-alone polymer Polylactic Acid is very brittle and requires plasticisers to help it be moulded and squeezed. In terms of oxygen permeability PLA is reported to be somewhere between PET (better than) and PVC (not quite as good).  This study on oxygen permeability of PLA found, as you would expect, that the thicker the PLA material, the stronger the oxygen barrier.  I found this simple and somewhat logical graph clicked something in me though,  we try to make plastics thinner so they use less material and are more efficient but in doing so we might well increase their oxygen permeability to a point that they can no longer perform well for us – a balance between packaging thickness and packaging performance has to be met.  On further reading it turns out that there is an optimum amount of plasticiser to be added that further increases the plastics tolerance to oxygen.  Adding more plasticiser goes on to reduce oxygen tolerance.  Again, simple science really but interesting as it shows the limits and tolerance of different polymers to different conditions.

Just one other thing around PLA is its heat stability. Like PET, PLA is not that heat stable and can deform at temperatures of 60C and up which puts hot filing out of the question. This can make PLA bottles unsuitable for some cosmetic applications.

Permeability of packaging


So nearly everything we use can be recycled. So what’s the problem?

Not everything that CAN be recycled IS as we can see from the graph above. When I found this chart I immediately questioned why New Zealand was at the bottom as that looked odd to me but apparently they did have quite a bad record in recycling up to around 2008 when Parliament started to take things a bit more seriously.    Apparently at that time it was costing 10 times more to send something to landfill in the UK than New Zealand so quite simply, chucking it in the dump was just too cheap in NZ.  The price paid to dump stuff is entirely political so it is right for politicians to manage this.

New Zealand landfil

The barriers to recycling are many including the availability and proximity of recycling facilities to waste generation,  price of transport,  price of energy and government policy/ incentives on waste to name but a few.  Some years it makes more sense financially to recycle than create new material while in other years the dollars stack in favour of just making it all afresh. Think of the difference in costs between building your new home on a freshly, clear, level site vs a knock-down and disposal job.   During times when global oil prices are low, it would be down to government policy to make recycling more attractive.  As you can see below, oil prices rise and fall quite dramatically over time and as bioplastics currently only make up 1% of the plastics market, oil prices still matter hugely!

global oil prices

Petroleum Free Plastics Accounted for only 1% of the global plastics market in 2013

The other big problem with plastic recycling is that you can only recycle so much before you reach the end of the line.  Just how many times plastic can be recycled is something I can’t entirely answer as it depends on the starting plastic and in what it is subsequently recycled into but often you are talking about only once for bottles (so virgin bottle then recycled bottle) and then it has to be re-purposed into something else.  This reality goes for all types of plastic, whether bio or petroleum which basically means that when using plastic packaging its final demise should always be kept in mind and when we think of death we must also think of birth – the circle of life or Cradle to Grave Analysis.

In terms of what ‘other’ things plastics might become when they stop being bottles we find that quite a bit of it actually comes back as clothing!  Again, when looking into the plastic microbeads issue I was blown away by the fact that I was often WEARING much more plastic than I was ever putting on my face (or even counting for the plastic in the product bottle).

Bottle to coat

25 x 2 litre bottles = 1 fleece jacket. Made from Polyester or Polar Fleece

Degradation times: 

  • Cotton glove: 3 months
  • Wool: 1 to 5 years
  • Leather shoes: 25 to 40 years
  • Nylon: 30 to 40 years
  • Rubber boot sole: 50 to 80 years

Other companies such as this one take plastics and rubbers and turn them into more durable products such as park benches,  play matting, decking and fences thus extending the usable life of the plastic and diverting it from landfill.

Bio-Polymers – Are they a good choice?

Rather than answering this with a personal judgement call I want to look at the subtleties and facts again.

Petroleum is going to eventually run out as it is a fossil fuel that we use faster than we can make so we HAVE to find alternatives which we are doing with our bioplastics typically made from corn starch, rice husk, bamboo fibre, palm leaf, sugarcane and wheat straw. Just look at all of these lovely things that Ecosoulife make this way (OK so that’s a personal judgement but I do like these things)!

Bioplastics are renewable as they grow fast and can be re-grown for as long as the soil is viable and available and water is present in the right quantities.  But if we stop and think on that for a moment it doesn’t take long to realise that land availability and water security are also hot environmental issues for us right now.

An Aside: My thoughts here are that we could find ourselves in a ‘Palm Oil’ type position if we don’t do some proper joined-up thinking about this right now – we all jumped on board the palm oil wagon for cosmetic ingredients when moving from petroleum and tallow to vegetable feedstock, we felt good about that and ended up consuming MORE product (and arguably valuing the resources less because they were so cheap). If we do that with bioplastics we will end up in real trouble as both packaging and product will be competing for land (including land currently used for food crops) and water resources.

But don’t bioplastics biodegrade better?

Biodegradability is a funny thing and is heavily dependent on the environmental conditions the packaging finds its self in and the definition of biodegradable the product complies to but in any case bioplastic and biodegradable are not one in the same. It is possible to make a bioplastic that doesn’t biodegrade and make regular plastics from petroleum that do.  The main plus point with bioplastics is the non-reliance in petroleum feedstock, that said, the chemicals used to plasticise or process the bioplastics are likely to be petroleum derived (and may be present up to 40% of bulk weight, so a bioplastic might represent a 60% ‘saving’ as a minimum on petroleum resources).

Biodegradable plastics are plastics that are engineered to fail (break down) at some point. The plastic manufacturers may incorporate a chemical into the structure that breaks down in certain conditions (UV, moisture, heat, soil etc).  One such chemical is BASF’s Ecoflex which can also be mixed into Polylactic Acid plastics for a totally ‘green’ packaging solution.  Another option is Ecopure from Bio-Tec Environmental, this is more similar to what is found in biodegradable cosmetic packaging.

So, to re-cap you can buy bioplastics made from corn that don’t biodegrade and those that do, just as you can buy petroleum derived plastics that behave similarly.

In terms of biodegradation that is worth a whole other article as plastics might degrade to their monomers but not break down fully.  Biodegradable plastics based on Polylactic acid are sold as being able to break down into nature identical compounds that don’t pollute the soil,  some are even classified as compostable but not all.  One might now feel that this gold standard of bio plastic, biodegradable and compostable is the answer for you but be aware that this type of packaging may not yet be available to suit and support the types of products you are wishing to make – patience grasshopper x

Additional options for the cosmetic brand owner to investigate. 

Did you know that it is entirely possible to re-create petroleum derived plastics naturally?  Without getting too deep into a chemistry lesson petroleum derived plastics rely on a chemical called ethylene which is produced by cracking naptha, a chemical that comes from crude oil. BUT ethylene can also be manufactured from ethanol derived from sugar cane (or corn)! Brazilian company Braskem is the largest manufacturer with 52% market share.  Keeping this in mind it might be the case that rather than we all change to DIFFERENT polymers (PLA etc) we stick with PET, HDPE and the rest but create them with vegetables rather than crude oil.  In many ways this would be an easier route to take as we have more experience with these polymers than we do with PLA.  The only hurdles being (again) the land use food vs packaging issue and the biodegradability profile.

And finally to Waste-to-Art projects.  Packaging from Fungi!

OK so this is my favourite option in terms of novelty and functionality and that’s plastic made either from mushrooms mycelia or from waste greens as long as its compostable where possible.

Without a doubt in my mind the biggest issue in moving from a petroleum to vegetable economy is land use. If, like me you value forests, countryside and space the thought of a growing global population using land for even more non-edible resource production is actually quite sad-making so I’m super excited at the prospect of turning the bits of vegetables we don’t use into up-stream products instead.  Now sure, that plastics company Ecopure above are already doing that to some degree you might say but I’m talking about real waste like the stuff you might put into your composting bins OR the actual roots of the fungus that starts decomposing your stuff.  That’s what I call an exciting use of resources.  Now again, these types of plastics are not likely to be coming in every shape, size and packaging type to a store near you any time in the near future but in time, I think it will be the way to go (just as we are doing in looking to replace palm oil feedstock with algae – something I talked about in this article in 2013)

I came across an interesting American company, Ecovative, when looking at alternatives for the Polyethylene packing nuggets that are often used.  This company actually make their plastics from mushroom mycelium which I think is really FAB!

mushroom packaging

Grow it yourself mushroom packaging – not water resistant but could be a good option for postage packs. From

While this isn’t a workable solution in terms of a material for your shampoo bottle or face mask just yet it is possibly a contender for your shippers,  point of sale displays or packaging boxes and what’s more it can definitely be composted after use.  I do look forward to a more mushroomy packaging future after reading that even though at present, the company is not able to ship its packaging to Australia due to quarantine restrictions – what a shame! Maybe us Aussies can learn how to grow our own plastic! And on that note I’ll wrap things up.

Plastic and the Cosmetic Brand – How are things stacking up?

OK so for those of you wanting to shout ‘yes but there’s glass, tin and aluminium packaging out there and they are both infinitely recyclable I’d say yes, but this article has been about plastic in its many guises and formats.  Glass is heavy (when compared to plastic) and therefore expensive to ship AND it requires more protecting in shipping to prevent breakages.  It can be dangerous in wet and slippery places. Further it  often requires a lid of closure or tube dispenser which, is often (though not always) plastic.  Aluminium tubes are brilliant for many things except it can be very hard to get them filled (not many people have the capacity for filling and run sizes for packaging purchasing and filling can often be very long) – one point of interest is that Aluminium is extremely oxygen tight so excellent for packing materials that oxidise.  Tin is a more expensive material and is less flexible than aluminium so is less likely to be used as tubes (read this for more info if you are interested).  Going plastic free is possible but it comes with its own varied challenges that may or may not be ‘worth it’ for your brand, so back to plastic.

There is one theme that has come up time and time again when I’ve been researching plastics for the cosmetic industry and that’s the massive amount of innovation and science that is going on in this space.  We have new polymers, old polymers made in new ways, old polymers made in old ways but with new additives to make them break down quicker and more besides.  As a scientist I’m always drawn into areas of innovation and this, for me is a huge opportunity for just that.  I appreciate that some people wish to go plastic free (just as I appreciate the wish for some brands to be palm free) and I accept that in some cases avoidance is a reasonable plan but for those of you with an interest in the science of the mainstream (me) then plastics is where it is at!

I can’t personally see a future without plastic but after looking into all of this I feel I have more than enough reasons to feel positive that things are going in the right direction. Now if we can all just help keep the pressure up on governments to maintain investment in this type of material science,  recycling initiatives, land-fill and waste charging and valuing our land and primary resources I think the future may well look bright.

I am sorry for the long post but this has been an epic research project that I’ve barely summarised in these 3000 plus words 🙂

Amanda x

PS: If anyone is scratching their heads and crying about the mention of pthalate plasticisers in plastic manufacture I will put that on my list to get back to at some point. It is possible to test finished products for plastic leaching and stability testing of cosmetics generally checks for visible (and sometimes chemical) signs of leaching in prone products so generally the immediate risk to consumers is low (or at least managed) but the fate of these chemicals in the environment and the presence of them in the first place might still cause concern.  Pthalates are plasticisers and have been found to have hormone mimicking powers (endocrine disruptors).





One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2018 7:03 am

    Well this is great to know about Plastic and related brands
    Top of that it seems like very obvious for this industry, Keep up the good work …!!!

    Cosmetic Boxes

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