As a beauty editor, I inevitably collect a lot of work products, and every few months I have to throw out a bunch of empty or used products. As someone who regularly recycles at home, I’m actively trying to break through “greenwashing” and find environmentally friendly waste disposal options. 

When it comes to beauty products, there are some obvious and not-so-obvious hurdles to overcome when it comes to recycling. “Beauty packaging often contains mixed materials (metal, plastic, glass) that are not accepted in municipal curbside recycling bins,” said Gigi Ganatra, vice president of corporate affairs at Nordstrom. 

Still, many products you think (or just hope) can be recycled end up in the recycling bin—a practice known as "wish recycling" that can do more harm than good. In total, more than 120 billion cosmetic packaging is produced every year, of which less than 10% is ultimately recycled (a statistic I repeat often in my research). Now, many brands are taking steps to increase that number and reduce the amount of cosmetic packaging that ends up in landfill. This also provides consumers with more sustainable solutions and recycling options. 

Below I’ll tell you all about recycling beauty products and show you some of the procedures I find most helpful in giving my empty products a second life. Which cosmetic packaging is recyclable? With all the tubes, pumps, bottles and cans out there, the question "What is actually recyclable?" is a perfectly legitimate question - unfortunately there is no clear answer. Different cities have different rules when it comes to recycling. “Municipal recycling facilities (MRFs) are independent businesses and therefore have different sorting and processing capabilities,” explained Pact Project Director Carly Snider. “The type of packaging or materials that may be accepted in one city may not be accepted in another, making it difficult for consumers to decide what to do with their beauty packaging.” 

Additionally, cosmetics companies may mislead consumers into thinking that non-recyclable materials are recyclable. "The tracking arrow (the recycling triangle we all know) is a symbol that indicates packaging is recyclable," Snyder said. “Unfortunately, this is not the case as beauty players can use it on any packaging – even if it is not recyclable.” It's a larger problem that starts long before mislabeled products reach consumers and the Environmental Protection Agency has pushed to eliminate the use of widely recognized recycling symbols on plastics that are not actually recyclable. 

Additionally, California recently passed the Truth in Recycling Act, which sets out statewide recyclability standards and requires companies to accurately label recyclable materials. 

However, before these changes can happen, consumers need to understand which materials are actually being recycled. "The cosmetic packaging most likely to be recycled is glass packaging (to the point of being opaque), metal packaging and large-format plastic packaging made from #1 PET or #2 HDPE - more than 2 inches on one side," says Snyder . “All other beauty packaging has a very low chance of being recycled by MRF as they are often too small (e.g. compacts) too flexible (e.g. squeeze tubes) or made from too much material (e.g. fused layers or pumps). Can be recycled using traditional way to achieve it.” To date, plastic containers marked with the number one or two in the tracking arrow indicating the type of plastic they are made of, rather than their recyclability (hence the attempt to abolish the symbol)) are generally accepted by curbside recycling programs in the United States. In New York City all plastic bottles, cups, jars and jugs are accepted, regardless of the item’s “recycling number.” However, there are exceptions: tubes used for cosmetics, toothpaste, etc. are not included in the city's recycling program. 

Likewise, be sure to check local recycling guidelines before separating empty boxes. How2Recycle has some helpful resources and search tools you can use to check your area.
Fortunately, there are companies trying to help consumers navigate this gray area of ​​recycling. 

Some companies, like Junk Theory and Flamingo Estate, use permanently recyclable materials (i.e. aluminum) in their packaging, while others offer recycling programs to take the guesswork out of whether empty boxes are truly getting a new life. 

Nonprofits Pact Collective and TerraCycle are two of the most prominent companies doing this work. Major retailers like Nordstrom, Sephora and Credo, as well as independent brands, have either partnered with them or created their own recycling programs. 

In terms of convenience and the ability to do as little work as possible, I've found these resources to be the easiest way to ensure my empty boxes are properly sorted and diverted from landfills. 

Stay tuned, I'll go into more detail about the specifics of these programs and the packages they accept later. How to prepare empty cosmetics for recycling. So once you determine which products are actually recyclable, you may want to clean the containers before shipping. 

Aluminum and plastic packaging entering household recycling should be rinsed like used food containers. If you participate in a program like Pact Collective or Nordstrom Beautycycle, stricter rules may apply. For Pact, they have to be completely clean, Snyder said. 

“Packaging that leaves residue is considered contaminated and cannot be recycled properly,” she explains. However, for Nordstrom's Beautycycle program, Ganatra says the product doesn't have to be 100 percent clean, "just pouring or scooping out the product is enough." 

Be sure to check the guidelines for the specific program you choose. I find that tools like these little makeup spatulas from Jenny Patinkin help me get to the bottom of hard-to-reach products (like foundation bottles) or scrape the last bits of product out of jars. 

If you do need to get your container thoroughly clean, Ganatra recommends rinsing the container thoroughly and "soaking the empty container in a bowl of water" to remove as much product residue as possible from the container. 

Where can I recycle old beauty products? 

While there are more and more companies and brands offering recycling programs, I find these programs to be the most helpful because of their accessibility, simplicity, and transparency.

Beautycycle bins are available in all Nordstrom, Nordstrom Rack and Nordstrom Local stores across North America, with more than 350 participating locations. They've partnered with TerraCycle to accept a selection of empty skincare, makeup, and hair care products from all brands, not just those purchased at Nordstrom. 

This includes extremely tricky packaging components like pump caps and spray triggers, hoses, lipstick boxes, and more. Once the packaging is collected, TerraCycle sorts, cleans and directs the materials to the appropriate recycling channels so they can be turned into other items such as household goods and building materials.

As of August 2023, the retailer has recycled 50 tons of cosmetic packaging, half of its goal of recycling 100 tons of cosmetic packaging in 2025. You can also shop Nordstrom’s line of sustainable beauty products here. 

Sephora’s Beauty (Re)Purpose program in partnership with Pact Collective launched in 2023, resulting in the installation of empty recycling bins in more than 600 stores across the U.S. and Canada. As mentioned earlier, Pact guidelines require packaging to be clean and contain no liquid or product. You can bring empty bottles from any brand, so feel free to bring your drugstore favorites or independent brands. Sephora also offers a range of "Clean + Planet Positive" products on its website, so you can make an informed decision when looking for products or brands that use responsible packaging. 

Once the cosmetic (re)use container reaches capacity, the empty container will be sent to a Pact partner who will determine the best use for the collected material. This may include mechanical recycling of materials for new packaging, carpeting, etc.

TerraCycle has more than 100 free recycling programs, dozens of which focus on beauty product packaging. Works with brand partners like Burt's Bees, Paula's Choice, Supergoop and more! 

And there's more: There are many recycling options - each with its own guide. So be sure to check TerraCycle’s website before sending your empty bottles. While some partners accept any brand, others only accept a single brand. Additionally, some retailers may offer on-site collection boxes at some retailers, while others may only offer a mail-in program (with a free shipping label). There are also products and packaging that are notoriously difficult to recycle, such as aerosols and even hair care products. The materials collected by TerraCycle are sorted, cleaned and processed so that they can be sent to appropriate third-party partners for recycling into new usable forms.
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