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Halfway through this Plastic Free July

July 16, 2018

It seemed fitting this year to sign up for plastic free July even though I knew that the month would be anything but plastic free due to my need to keep on churning out the samples for clients. But it is fitting because lots of my clients are now actively looking for ways to reduce waste and offer recyclable packaging options,  some because they’ve seen David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ and others because of the ABC  series ‘war on waste’.  Then there are the clients that have always been ‘green’ but are only now seeing that their target market and packaging suppliers are starting to catch up with them – it’s all very well-being ahead of the curve until your curve leaves you with products that nobody can afford and/or with packaging that is almost wholly impractical/ unsafe (glass in the shower anyone…). It finally seems to me that the heavens are starting to align for the cosmetic industry.  Starting being the operative word.

reuse bags

So I thought I’d write this blog post by focusing on myself as a consumer of stuff, cosmetic stuff included,  so that we might together walk through what ‘Plastic Free July’ is feeling like for me, the average human who likes being clean.  Here is what I’ve done.

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere.

Hand Cream, Lip Balm, Face Cream, Toothpaste, Razors, Shampoo, Conditioner,  Liquid Soap (mainly for hand washing apre’s the lavatory), foundation, powder, mascara, deodorant…..

For a cosmetic chemist I’m not actually a heavy product user and I can often reduce that list down a few and just do the one cream for everywhere that needs moisturising, shampoo for everything that needs washing and a dab of foundation when I can be arsed plus sunscreen for where the foundation doesn’t reach. Oh and deodorant, I do need deodorant to make me feel fresher even though July is a cold month here in Oz so we can get away with less than we would in summer and it’s easier to hide the aroma of the arm pit under several merino wool layers 🙂

So not many products but according to my bathroom bin I’m still throwing out too much plastic each month so let’s get busy trying to reduce that.

In the run-up to plastic free July I made myself some shampoo balls out of powdered synthetic detergent and some other stuff.  I also mastered conditioner balls which, it turned out, were much harder to get right and hard especially given that the cationic ingredients needed to condition the hair can’t be used at high levels thanks to their irritancy potential so we are left playing with an awful lot of Cetearyl Alcohol or equivalent which sets to a sort-of inflexible flake.  Not ideal but anyway, I managed it. For me, shampoo and conditioner were/ are my biggest use items as I wash and condition my hair daily as do my two long-haired kids and my husband (who has hardly any hair on his head but makes up for it on his chest and still likes the bubbles).   While I have managed to cut back on the need for packaging with both of these products by making them solid it wasn’t strictly necessary for me as I can make my own products and therefore can pack the liquid into whatever I want AND wash and re-use it if needed.  So it turns out that solid shampoo and conditioner balls are mainly great for travelling (less space) and for purchasing when you can’t make your own but if the idea of changing from a liquid to a solid freaks you out you can always make your own liquid shampoo and still avoid the consumer-sized plastic bottles.  On this subject I do understand that lots of people get by mighty fine with shampoo bars made via saponification, I just haven’t mastered that for me yet but those bars are the ultimate in low-impact cleansing as we will start to appreciate here in my little aside…

An aside – Plastic, plastic, plastic – the Babushka doll effect.

At the surfactant factory surfactant is made. That surfactant can be liquid or solid.

Liquid surfactant is usually delivered to the product manufacturer in one of three ways:

  • Bulk – in a special truck that offloads into the factory tanks, often in 20,000 litre lots at a time.  L’Oreal and other big brands would typically take their deliveries this way.  Very low packaging waste. Some factories are set to handle quite concentrated surfactant liquids (70-100% active depending on type) while others require more dilute mixes (20-50%).  The environmental impact here, outside of the manufacturing of the surfactant is the trucking costs with the more concentrated surfactant being more economical to ship than the more dilute one.  But then one has to consider factory handling costs. More concentrated surfactant is usually thicker and might take more power to pump around the factory so there is a pay off between shipping costs and CO2 emissions and factory pumping and handling costs and energy use.
  • 1000 litre intermediate bulk tanks – these are usually square heavy-duty plastic containers that are protected by a metal cage and can be stacked and moved around by a forklift truck. These are typically re-used after washing out and many supply chain companies offer a container deposit and re-fund scheme to encourage the recycling of containers. This has been very popular in the EU for a long time thanks to legislation and penalties around single-use packaging items in manufacturing but may not be enforced as widely elsewhere.  Old containers can sometimes be purchased for re-purposing by the general public too so these are quite economical and strong.  A wide variety of chemicals are stored like this.
  • Drums – 150-200 litre drums is quite typical.  These are nearly always metal and nearly always get re-cycled (re-worked) rather than cleaned and re-used but as the metal is recyclable any number of times these can be a good option for brands looking for smaller amounts of ingredients.  Drums are often shrink, wrapped to a pallet and shipped in lots of 4-6 drums depending on their size.
  • Bags – Powdered surfactant including soap noodles,  soap nut powder,  SYNDET soap powder and others are usually supplied in re-enforced paper sacks rather like bread sacks.  These are typically stacked on pallet loads and shipped in something like 1mt pallet quantities of which clients can buy individual bags or the whole pallet.  The pallet lot is usually shrink wrapped before shipping to protect it from dampness and from splitting.
  • Re-Packed.  So all of the above options can arrive to an ingredient re-packer and then be re-packed.  Depending on the size of business the re-packer deals with items may be packed into glass, plastic or paper and shipped in relatively large or small sizes.  The smaller the size the manufacturer buys, the bigger the packaging impact and vice versa but at this end of the scale one has to be mindful of waste and shelf-life.  Is it better to buy little and often and never lose material due to stock expiry or to save packaging, buy in bulk then have to throw half of the material away when it doesn’t get used in time?  Small packs also increase their CO2 footprint via transportation costs and general wastage as there is always product loss when transferring from packaging to manufacturing vessel.

Anyway, back to the products…

Toothpaste – to be honest, this time I didn’t even go there in making my own. I have made plenty of toothpastes in my time for people who don’t want ‘chemicals’, particularly fluoride but I’m happy to keep that in my toothpaste so I just opted to buy the same brand as normal but just in larger tubes – bigger volume of stuff-to-packaging ratio.

Deodorant – luckily enough I’ve been making lots of deodorants for clients of late so I just bagged myself a dollop of that.  Some of the deodorant I’ve been working with has been in solid stick form and I’ve actually found that quite easy to use as a sort of deodorant pebble type thing.  Probably wouldn’t appeal to everyone to rub a solidish deodorant under their pits but I felt fine with it so that’s what I’ve been doing.  Also I have seen a few brands now going for cardboard type tubes in this area which is lovely and can work really well.  I was also reminded by a trip to the supermarket that many roll-on deodorants are actually packaged in glass and the spray-ons are recyclable metal so maybe the plastic count isn’t so bad here after all.

Soap – Shampoo bar doubles up as soap so no dramas there. Otherwise there are bars of soap lying around that I can use for that.

Moisturiser – Again, I’m lucky as I make moisturiser all the time and can easily grab some from the lab and pop it into a glass jar.  For me that’s job done. I do know of some people who are happy to just use a veggie oil as moisturiser (say Olive or Jojoba Oil) and that’s pretty low-impact packaging wise but I do like to indulge in the sophisticated textures and actives of an emulsified moisturiser so I’d be looking at ways to get that with less impact than give it up altogether, especially as my skin can be quite challenging with the eczema and all.

Foundation – already in glass packaging except for the tube and lid which are plastic.  I figured that as this lasts me quite a while (I’d only go through 3 per year max) it probably isn’t such a big deal.

Mascara – Mine is all plastic but again I use so little of it that it lasts me way past its best-before date so I’m not replacing that.

Sunscreen – I’ve written enough about sunscreen for any regular readers to know that I wouldn’t skimp on this OR make my own (untested) product so this is one that’s staying as is. All I would say is that sunscreen is the type of product that can get abused and mis-used during its lifetime. Kept in the sand, at the bottom of a dirty bag, shared around and generally mucked-up.  I’m pledging to take better care of my sunscreen so that I ensure the whole pack can be used before it becomes too icky and dirty.  On that note I mostly buy the family bulk pack anyway so as to reduce packaging impact. It is Australia after all and we should use sunscreen every day (although I often forget and I’m sure my skin is paying the price sadly).

The verdict. 

If you are a cosmetic chemist or someone with an interest and a bit of know-how in cosmetic ‘cooking’ you can probably cover yourself quite well and make up your own products and store them in re-useable tins, bottles or jars BUT you perhaps should be a bit honest with yourself about the real environmental impact/ savings of what you are doing, especially if you are buying up lots of small lot ingredients and some of those are going to waste or if you are risking your health in doing so.  Remember that many ingredients come in plastic bottles or jars so that should also be taken into consideration and not just the in-use pack.  I think for many, purchasing from an established brand that’s doing the right thing may well be environmentally less impactful than making everything yourself. For those that aren’t into making things, sometimes just up-sizing the packaging and going for something the whole family can use is a good option – stop buying one cream for him, one for her and another for the kids maybe.  Multi-functional products can also be good as can products with a long shelf life that can at least give you time to get through them all.  Remembering the packaging-to-product ratio is the easiest change we can make I think.

Personal Care – The non-wet stuff.

One other big thing that I’ve focused on this Plastic Free July is in ditching the single-use razor. It has become something of a mission of mine  with three leg-shavers in the house in a country where it’s summer for nearly 8 months of the year.  Anyway, I’ve been searching and have found these guys who make delightful metal razors with replaceable blades. They will even let you post back your old blades for recycling, the product is reasonably priced from the outset so I’m happy all round.

Cotton Buds are another thing that I tend to use too much but luckily I’ve also found those with bamboo handles or cardboard instead of plastic, same for toothbrushes although I have to say I’m yet to change as my plastic brush still hasn’t run out. It’s good to see a fast growing ‘green’ material starting to replace throw-away plastic as we move back to a more natural way of being.

Hairdryer and styling tools – OK so these aren’t daily disposable items but living in a pretty hot place I’ve been able to ditch the hairdryer save for trips to the hairdresser, for the last 10 years which has, in a way, reduced my plastic consumption as I’ve not burned out a device or two in that time period.  Same for clothes dryers which are hardly needed here in Australia but I guess that’s another discussion.

Feminine hygiene has come on leaps and bounds in some regards in this space.  Now there are a variety of underwear brands that can cope with most days without the need for a pad or tampon, there are also the moon cups which are great re-usable options for those who can handle them and there are also contraceptive IUD’s that can eliminate the need for the monthly bleed anyway for those who are not attached to that cycle.

Toilet Paper is another area of stuff and while my normal brand isn’t too bad as I don’t tend to buy the plastic covered packs much but I did want to go all out and support a better way. So, this Plastic-Free-July I’ve gone with the ‘Who Gives A Crap‘ group who support the building of sanitation facilities overseas with each purchase and who pack without plastic and deliver in bulk.

Who gives a crap

Overall I’m starting to see that buying in bulk and planning ahead are key factors in a successful plastic reduction strategy as is just taking a step back and realising that some of the little things you just do day after day do, indeed add up over time and when there are easy, drop-in options that are less impactful it can actually be fun to take them!

Before I go I’ll just mention another thing and that’s to do with work and my lab.

I have terrible eczema from time to time on my hands and so have often had to resort to plastic throw-away gloves when I’m working and for when I’m washing up. I have somewhat reduced my reliance on those by buying re-usable pairs for when they are needed and going without at other times but that has taken a toll on my hands which are often itchy and broken (skin wise).  I have noticed that there are many jobs where the use of single-use plastic items are required for health or hygiene and am hopeful that one day soon we can find a way to meet these needs without harming the planet as plastic gloves are undoubtedly a necessity in many applications, mine probably less so although they can make my life more comfortable.

In the lab I’ve stopped using plastic weigh boats (which I inherited rather than purchased) and instead opt for small stainless steel weigh bowls for my tiny measurements. These are hard to break, easy to clean and great for heating (if required) small amounts of liquid (although hands can get burned if you don’t have tongues to pick them up).  This has reduced my lab waste somewhat.  I’m also trying to ditch the plastic pipettes and have gone back to my old uni-days glass droppers albeit with plastic pump handles (but at least they are re-usable).  I’m also making sure I recycle as much packaging as possible, use glass for whatever I reasonably can and am cutting down on the number of samples I retain (to one instead of two – a test and a look) but again, it’s highlighted to me just how reliant we’ve become on plastic and how hard it is to avoid its use or even reduce it in some cases.

A final word.

Plastic Free July may only be 16 days in but so far it has really opened my eyes and made me think about everything I do, the challenges my brand owning clients have in their business and the trials and tribulations of the modern-day cosmetic purchaser.   It will no doubt take a long time to undo all of the plastification of the last 60 or so years and I doubt that we need to go that far but we definitely do need to change and as I said at the beginning of this piece, it finally looks like the heavens are starting to align, the alternatives are becoming available and the public are ready to invest in a greener, cleaner and hopefully healthier future.

So thanks Plastic Free July for getting me thinking, so far it’s been fun.






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