There’s more than one path to a green beauty regimen. One devout primper explores ways to shrink her cosmetic footprint by simply creating less waste
I USED TO open the drawers that contain my embarrassingly large assortment of cosmetics and get a little jolt of happiness from the shiny, pretty things inside. Lately, all I see is future trash. I can’t help but picture the containers holding my beloved fuchsia lip stain and 10-pan eye shadow palettes adrift in the tides for eternity, trapped in the Texas-size flotilla of plastic debris known as the Pacific Gyre.
I probably rank between 5 and 8 on the eco-consciousness scale of 1 to 10 (with Ed Begley Jr. ranking as a 10 and, say, a climate-change denier bottoming out as a 1). My number might be more favorable if it weren’t for my cosmetics habit. I will not use cocoa powder as blush or olive oil as a hair product. I will not forgo mascara even though the plastic tubes and applicator wands I frequently discard contribute to the over 75 million tons of packaging trash (approximately one third of the 250 million tons of total garbage) that the EPA estimated was created in the U.S. in 2012.
I love the satisfying click a prestige compact produces when you close it, and the perfect little mirror tucked inside. Makeup’s raison d’être is grounded in that desire to feel pampered and elegant, and it’s a hard sell to convince certain women to sacrifice a Chanel lipstick—and the seemingly innocuous and luxurious adrenaline spike that comes with it—for the sake of a cleaner planet.
The only solution for me was to seek ways to reduce my beauty footprint—does that make it a face print?—without resorting to brushing Hershey’s Unsweetened on the apples of my cheeks. And the answer wasn’t as simple as just buying products marketed as “green” (though I try to use those when I find one that works for me). Even environmentally conscious companies struggle with packaging. Brands like Josie Maran and Ilia make beautiful products with healthier ingredients that are still poured into little plastic tubes, or a combination of glass and plastic and metal that can be a recycling nightmare.
My first step toward conservation was simple: pre-cycling. I stopped buying what I didn’t “need” (with cosmetics, that term is always relative). Instead of indulging in new lipsticks, I mix existing colors with a lip brush to make new shades. A tub of loose powder (for the eyes or face) goes further than a compact of pressed powder, so I buy less of it overall. I replace only those things that run out or dry up and whose packages I can’t refill. For me that usually means Laura Mercier concealer and Almay mascara (the only brand that doesn’t redden my sensitive eyes). I don’t buy anything new until I finish something and toss it into my recycling bag (more on that later).
The second was to try to actually refill refillable packaging—which is more prevalent in high-end products than you might think. One of the best lipstick makers out there, Serge Lutens, offers refillable tubes. I take the empty bottle of my favorite fragrance from Le Labo, Rose 31, to the brand’s West Hollywood boutique to be topped up, and I am committed to refilling my beautiful, metal Kjaer Weis cream blush compact, developed by Danish makeup artist Kirsten Kjaer Weis. She also makes refillable mascara, foundation, lip tints and eye shadow, which can be purchased on her website.
I also decided to seek out products that aren’t excessively packaged. I jettisoned classic lip-gloss with its tubes and wands for NARS’s clever new gloss pencil. I also use the brand’s matte lip color pencils instead of lipstick. Both sharpen down to nothing but a plastic cap. A recent obsession is Laboratoire Paysane bar soap made on a family farm in central France, formulated with donkey milk (it’s wonderfully creamy and doesn’t dry my skin) and sold in nothing but a thin paper wrap. I now use it in place of my natural face cleanser, which came in a hard plastic pump dispenser.
It’s also smart to be aware of a product’s general recyclability. For instance, avoid packaging that fuses metal, glass and plastic. “Hybrid packaging is the biggest challenge in recycling cosmetics,” said Albe Zakes, vice president of communications for TerraCycle, the Trenton, N.J.-based recycling company that partners with beauty brands to produce things like benches and flowerpots using plastic amalgam. (TerraCycle and Garnier, a division of L’Oréal, have built two community parks, one in Manhattan and a newly completed one in New Orleans, entirely from recycled beauty packaging.) TerraCycle, however, has special equipment to process hybrids that can’t be tossed in the average blue bin.
Still, I look for single-material packaging, like the metal tubes that hold L’Occitane creams, or the glass pots in which Laura Mercier sells its cream eye liners. Then when I’m finished with my essential but not-even-vaguely-green items that keep my skin clear and my hair full (like Control Corrective’s oil-free moisturizer, packaged in two different types of plastic; the indispensable Kérastase Lait Vital Conditioner, also encased in two types of plastic; and my Oribe Dry Texturizing Spray in a metal-and-plastic spray can), I send them off to TerraCycle so they live their next life as a park bench. Although mailing a ten-pound bag of used face-cream tubs across the country isn’t the perfect solution to the problem, for me, the steps I’m taking are headed in the right direction. Who knows? I may start to open that drawer with a newly rediscovered thrill.
Date: November 2014