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Beauty Laid Bare: The 'gritty' truth about your cosmetics

From problems with recycling to glitter particles in our oceans, what’s the environmental impact of the beauty industry?

Harvey Day
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You probably do it automatically now – you pop your empty moisturisers, lip glosses and concealers into the recycling bin at home and know you've done your little bit for the planet.

You probably assumed all those plastic containers were easily recyclable – and fair enough.

But a new documentary series is shedding light on the harm our obsession with cosmetics could be causing to the environment and showing why the packaging from many of our favourite beauty products can't be so easily recycled.

For BBC Three's Beauty Laid Bare, four people – three obsessed with make-up and one who's generally against it – investigated some of the biggest challenges facing the cosmetics industry today.

Why can't my make-up packaging be recycled?

In San Francisco, two of the group meet campaigner Shilpi Chhotray, from the group Break Free From Plastic, and ecology expert Martin Bourque.

Since 1950, only 9% of the world's plastic waste has been recycled. Around 12% is burned. The majority of it ends up in landfill or out in nature, which includes the plastic in our oceans.

"And it's being dumped in areas like South East Asia," Shilpi says.

Beauty Laid BareBBC THREE
Indonesia is the destination for lots of plastic rubbish

"The US has been shipping its waste overseas for decades," she says. Shilpi shows a video of a place in Indonesia that she says used to be a pristine agricultural area, but is now essentially a "toxic dump site".

The burning of plastic waste in Indonesia has been linked to cancer and respiratory problems. 

Martin, meanwhile, points out that some cosmetic products are made from unrecyclable types of plastic – and this is where its colour really matters.

Recycling black plastic products is tricky because recycling plants sort different types of plastic by bouncing a beam of light off them.

As black plastic absorbs light, it doesn't get sorted and instead is sent off to landfill or to be incinerated.

"The idea that we've created is that you can throw [all your recycling] in one bin and in the land of unicorns and fairies, the magic will happen," Martin says. "The reality is much grittier than that."

Beauty Laid BareBBC THREE
Shilpi Chhotray, from the group Break Free From Plastic, and ecology expert Martin Bourque

Back in the UK, Stuart Foster – chief executive officer of recycling charity RECOUP – tells BBC Three that size is a big reason why some cosmetics can't be recycled, with many being too small to be identified and processed by existing mass-recycling technology.

It's not an exact science but smaller items such as lipsticks, lip glosses and small bottles won't necessarily get sorted with the other plastic bottles, pots, tubs and trays, he says.

And when these products can't be repurposed, many end up being incinerated to be converted into energy.

"While it's not as good as recycling, in the UK they're at least doing something more with plastic than just putting it in a hole in the ground."

Cosmetics containing microplastics and glitter are a problem as well, according to Stuart, "because there's no way of stopping them from leaking through into the environment."

"It does make me feel quite guilty because I'm constantly just throwing these items in the bin and thinking, 'OK, that will be recycled and brought back to life again'," says Chloe, a make-up artist and influencer from Belfast who visited the San Francisco recycling plant.

"But most of the stuff that I use probably isn't being recycled," she says. "I feel like I need to take action because there's not going to be enough room on this world for all this extra stuff."

Beauty Laid BareBBC THREE
"I feel like I need to take action," says Chloe (right)

'Foot-long lipstick' 

So what can we do to help? We know there's a massive demand for more environmentally-friendly products but Shilpi argues that the focus should be on big companies and brands rather than on consumers. 

"We really need to be looking at the bigger picture and pushing these cosmetic corporations to do better," she says. She thinks people should write to make-up brands, tag them on social media and let them know that more needs to be done.

One of the biggest hurdles is size, according to Stuart. "We can't really ask the cosmetic sector to start producing a lipstick that's a foot long just so it can be recycled. Instead, we need to work around the system."

There could be more innovations in recycling plants to pick up and process smaller plastic items, he suggests, and more could be done to reuse existing containers.

In 2018, for example, one UK beauty company brought out a range of refillable lipsticks to cut down on plastic waste.

"It's in their own interest for cosmetics companies to pay more attention to this recyclability discussion and to help put those systems in place," Stuart says.

In a statement to BBC Three, a spokesperson for the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association – which represents companies in the cosmetics industry – said it is working with charities and industry groups to improve the collection and recycling of all cosmetic product packaging. 

Beauty Laid Bare is available on iPlayer.

Have you seen this?

Unmasked clean

What makes our lipstick glossy and foundation smooth? 70% of make-up products contain palm oil - so what are our beauty products doing to the planet?

Watch the documentary Unmasked: Make-Up's Big Secret below. 

This story was originally published on Sunday 2 February.