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We’re getting really angry about plastic but is our anger being mis-placed?

June 10, 2018

The other week I was out and about and a chap started talking to me about the polystyrene cups that were on the counter for clients to use if they wanted a drink of water.  He started off with a ‘I wouldn’t have thought anywhere would still use those things’ but it didn’t take long before he was quite literally fuming, citing ‘war on waste’ and talking about sea plastics and all manner of things.  I would usually be extremely sympathetic to anyone talking like that as I too despair over the state of the environment, the amount of plastic we use and those dreadful polystyrene cups but this time I didn’t.  This time I felt panicked to be honest. I felt like a change was coming in attitude that couldn’t be matched with reality.   Part of the reason for my panic was the fact that this chap was talking to me in a line up for the till.  He was wearing clothes that had an obvious plastic content to them and was carrying a plastic basket full of products packed in plastic and was likely to pay for said goods using his flexible plastic money pal…

To quote that well-known philosopher and poet Lana Del Rey:

There’s somethin’ in the wind, I can feel it blowin’ in
It’s comin’ in softly on the wings of a bomb
There’s somethin’ in the wind, I can feel it blowin’ in
It’s comin’ in hotly and it’s comin’ in strong

Misplaced anger can start a war and I’m feeling that the inevitable war on waste that needs to happen has the potential to bomb out a few allies early if it doesn’t get its mission right and that’s what I’m worried about.

Plastic is everywhere, in the obvious and no so much. I mentioned this before when there was outrage about microplastic exfoliating beads entering the sea.  Many people became passionate about demanding alternatives and I’m sure  some cheered when the laws got changed, cheered while spruiking their favourite  plant-based bead housed in a formula brought to you in a handy plastic-packaged bottle or jar no doubt. .   I’ve worked in plastic manufacturing environments and am well aware that most plastic has been or will become a slow-to-disappear microbead at some point in time. I can’t imagine there are any analytical methods around that can accurately trace the sea microbead  back to your face wash. Of course I understood and still understand the sentiment behind the action and I support it but I still felt a niggling concern that a lot of energy was about to be used up solving what would probably only amount to being a tiny fraction of the problem.  Humans only have so much time and energy in them before they give up so I’m a big fan of making our actions big and making them count which sometimes conflicts with the mantra ‘tiny steps lead to big effects’. I sometimes feel we use those tiny steps to placate ourselves and self-soothe.

So now, in this war-on-waste film era,  I’m concerned that the cosmetic industry is going to become THE focus of attention of this movement to develop a post-plastic reality.   While I think that change in this area is both needed and inevitable I worry that we’ll be left with all the anger, no viable solutions and a lot of brand owners in therapy.


Cosmetic packaging does come in all shapes and sizes, glass, recycled plastic,  different types of virgin plastics, bamboo, paper, cardboard, aluminium and so on and so forth. Some products can be packed in non-plastic packaging without an issue but many can’t YET.  Even when we can pack liquid products in glass, it’s nearly always plastic that makes up the lid, the dispensing tube or the label. Further, what you, the general public don’t see is that our glass bottles and jars nearly always come individually wrapped in plastic, a step that the factory implements to ensure that no dust or contamination gets onto and into the glass prior to us receiving it. So there’s the plastic we see and that which we don’t see.  Avoiding ALL plastics is very hard at this point in time for the cosmetic brand owner especially when you take into account the plastic that happens behind the scenes with regards to the packaging protection I’ve just mentioned to the plastic packaging that ingredients come in, the pipette used in the lab to transfer liquid, the containers that ingredients are shipped in, the protective disposable clothing the factory staff have to wear to avoid contamination, the bulk containers they pour your product into, the shrink-wrap for the pallets and the plastic on the boxes to hold the invoice on the pallet.   It’s no wonder that I’m worried.

For a brand to be able to afford the best in truly biodegradable or reusable packaging requires it to be available in small volumes.  Many brands I talk to weekly are packing off only 1000 units per run, even less sometimes.  That’s nowhere near enough to get your own bottles designed and produced – 20,000 of each type is the normal minimum order quantity.  This could leave many brands vulnerable to customer scorn without having any ability to do anything about it other than totally re-formulate or stop doing what they are doing – both expensive, anti-business options.  Also, just because biodegradable or plant-based plastics are available it doesn’t mean they are necessarily suitable for the cosmetic products we know and love.  Product packaging interaction is a huge part of stability testing and a product that fails because the packaging leaks, discolours or collapses is not at all sustainable even if it’s all organic.  Further, keep in mind that most packaging has to come in from overseas. There has been a lack of investment in Australian manufacturing for decades and now we are left with only a handful of options. Maybe we can become the sustainable packaging hub of the future but to get there is going to take time, money and some big brains working behind the scenes.

I’m involved in a couple of sustainable packaging projects right now and as exciting as that is it’s also hard because we just can’t get the solutions happening quick enough or cheaply enough to become main stream yet.  I am worried that the people who will bear the brunt of this new-found anti-plastic activism will be the brands trying their hardest to be the most natural and sustainable they can be.  It makes sense, especially as the packaging probably is the biggest environmental impact of a product but it isn’t entirely helpful if there are no other options.

I guess what I’d like is for the public who are very much trying to reduce the levels of plastic they ‘consume’ to be joined up in their thinking and to assist brands that are trying to do the right thing to carry on, even if that does mean purchasing items in plastic for a bit longer.   I’m a huge advocate for conscious consumerism – don’t buy too much (reduce/ make more considered choices), use every last drop of each product you buy,  re-use and then re-cycle.   It is getting difficult to participate in this world and enjoy all of our modern conveniences to their fullest while still trying to do the best for the environment but as hard as it is now, it will be even harder, I think,  if we kill off our little allies in the process.

I realise that while a world without plastic can’t come quickly enough, it has taken us over 70 years to get to this point and it might take more than a few weeks, months or even years to get us out of it.  I don’t see a need for a completely plastic-free future but it would be nice if our every-day, short-term needs could be met by packaging that doesn’t cost the earth.

I’ll leave you with that.

Amanda x

 

 

 

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