Australians spend billions of dollars on beauty products every year, but the remaining packaging mostly ends up in landfill.
It is estimated that more than 10,000 tonnes of cosmetic waste goes to landfill each year in Australia because make-up products are not widely accepted in kerbside recycling.
This is because they are too small to be sorted in a regular facility and often contain complex and mixed materials and residual products, which makes them difficult to recycle together with regular glass and plastic.
So what should you do with your old make-up and perfume?
What do companies do?
Several Australian and international beauty brands and retailers now offer return schemes where you can return used beauty products in store for recycling.
The products, including skin cream tubes, plastic and metal eyeshadow palettes, foundation and fragrance bottles are sorted into different waste streams such as glass, metal, soft and hard plastic.
They are then sent for processing to be turned into other products.
What the waste ends up with depends on the company doing the recycling and what the packaging is made of.
Australian recycling company Close the Loop turns plastic into an asphalt additive used on roads.
It said some hard plastics could be shredded and used as a concrete additive, while glass could be crushed and used as a sand substitute for buildings in the construction industry.
Other companies like TerraCycle say their recycled plastic waste can be used in garden beds, outdoor playgrounds and fences.
Who does recycling?
At present, recycling in the beauty and cosmetics industry is handled by private companies and not local councils.
Close the Loop recently announced a cosmetics collection trial with retail giant Myer, where consumers can return any used makeup items to a participating store until mid-September.
MAC Cosmetics is also part of this trial, which will help investigate the feasibility of a national beauty recycling scheme.
The Close the Loop process has been funded by a million dollar grant from the federal government.
A spokesman for the federal environment ministry said it funded the trial because cosmetics were difficult to recycle “through normal processes”.
“The project will establish a cosmetic recycling scheme by developing a comprehensive collection network that will collect, process and recycle waste from cosmetic makeup products,” the spokesperson said.
Major beauty retailers such as Mecca, David Jones, Jurlique, Olay, Sukin and Schwarzkopf also invest in recycling schemes and collaborate with the international company TerraCycle.
Jean Bailliard is CEO of TerraCycle Australia/NZ, which has recently partnered with French multinational Sephora.
“We form partnerships with brands and retailers like Sephora that pay for collection and recycling,” he said.
This means that the brands foot the bill.
“We don’t rely on the value of the plastic to cover our costs,” he said.
“We get the funding from the industry that wants to do the right thing.”
Jennie Downes, a researcher from Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute, said cosmetic recycling was in its early days and not yet economically viable.
“It is difficult for [new] recycling schemes to compete with the huge amount of plastic currently being produced and pumped onto the market,” she said.
She said there was also an issue of whether there was enough demand for the recycled products, which is not only a challenge for the beauty industry, but for recycling in general across Australia.
What can’t be recycled?
Different schemes have different rules, so it’s best to check with the place you’re returning your packaging to see what items they can take.
Generally, take-back schemes can take things like hand or body creams, eye shadows, eyeliner, mascara or other hair or skin care products.
They find it difficult to accept aerosols and nail polish, which are made of complex materials and can also be flammable.
TerraCycle and its partner brands will not accept aerosols or nail polishes, as it said they are difficult to transport in the mail.
TerraCycle also said it was only able to recycle empty packaging.
The government-funded Myer Close The Loop trial is testing accepting products such as aerosols and nail polish to see if they can work out how to safely transport and recycle them.
This trial will also accept packaging with residual products, although most return schemes require the returned products to be empty.
How do I know if the products are actually recycled?
This is a tricky one, but researcher Jenni Downes said it was best to have faith that companies were doing the right thing and to build a habit of trying to recycle products that you might have thrown in the bin before.
“There’s definitely some skepticism and mistrust out there that companies might be greenwashing,” she said.
“By being transparent about how much is returned, what it’s become, whether it’s happening locally or overseas, I think this kind of information really increases people’s confidence.”
Ms Downes said in terms of the number of recycled products or the type of things they are converted into, the numbers are likely to be small at first.
“It’s okay because they’re new,” she said.
“But they can tell that story as well as release the data … because if they don’t share that information, it would be hard for customers to trust them.”
She said the other thing worth thinking about was switching to refillable products, which were growing in popularity in the market.
“Recycling is definitely a last line of defense and looking at things further up the hierarchy, like recycling and refillable packaging, would be great too,” she said.