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Impacts of Cosmetic Waste

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 3299 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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What is cosmetic waste?

Cosmetics are defined as any product designed to improve one’s appearance, such as shampoo or eyeliner. Cosmetic waste, on the other hand, occurs when cosmetic products themselves or the packaging containing them enter the environment. For example, “Last year, Zero Waste Week… reported that more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry, most of which are not recyclable” (Morgan).  The cosmetic industry is a substantial contributor to the overall plastic problem that the world is facing. Additionally, because most plastic packaging is non-recyclable, this requires companies to use fossil fuels to produce new plastics, rather than reusing packaging. The plastic pollution alone from the cosmetics industry has a major impact on the environment, but the products themselves have additional dangers. For example, the chemical benzophenone and derivatives such as oxybenzone (a common ingredient in sunscreen) are used to protect against UV light, but “are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and organ system toxicity” in humans as well as aquatic organisms (“Environmental Concerns”). Higher rates of cancer and other health effects in a species could severely affect food chains, especially if a keystone species was one of the affected species. In addition to hundreds of other chemicals in cosmetics, cosmetics have the potential to destroy ecosystems. Another example of a harmful ingredient includes plastic microbeads, “small, solid, manufactured plastic particles that are less than 5mm and don’t degrade or dissolve in water” which are often “added to a range of products, including rinse-off cosmetics, personal care and cleaning products” as “an abrasive or exfoliant” (“Plastic Microbeads”). Because they don’t dissolve in water and are so small, they can easily go down the drain and enter aquatic environments. Additionally, because they are also plastic, they contribute to the preexisting problem of plastic pollution in the ocean. Lastly, because they don’t dissolve, they can subsist in aquatic environments from decades to centuries. For these reasons, cosmetic waste is a pressing issue that must be solved.

What are some environmental effects of cosmetic waste?

 The environmental effects of cosmetic waste vary based on the products involved, but are all destructive and very dangerous. One example of a cosmetic ingredient with catastrophic effects is the plastic microbead, which “can have a damaging effect on marine life, the environment and human health… due to their composition, ability to [absorb] toxins and potential to transfer up the marine food chain”(“Plastic Microbeads”). The absorption of toxins combined with biomagnification can result in high concentrations of these toxins in aquatic environments, having devastating effects on populations. Several populations are already struggling from the effects of existing pollution in the ocean, and microbead waste only magnifies these effects. Another ingredient with dangerous effects is the antibacterial agent triclosan, which has been linked to “environmental toxicity,” based on “evidence that triclosan is accumulating at high levels in fish and other aquatic life” (“Environmental Concerns”). The essential poisoning of environments with chemicals such as triclosan is not only destroying populations directly, but can also have indirect detrimental effects on apex predators. Similar to microbeads, when chemicals such as triclosan accumulate in a population of prey, predators absorb an exponential amount of these chemicals through the dozens of affected prey they consume. Lastly, the chemical oxybenzone, found in sunscreens, has been found to severely affect tropical waterways, having “toxic effects on young coral that causes endocrine disruption, DNA damage, and death, among other problems” (Morgan). With coral reefs already on the decline from other environmental issues, oxybenzone only accelerates the rate of coral bleaching and habitat destruction. Sources of great life and biodiversity, the loss of coral reefs would have catastrophic effects on oceanic ecosystems as a whole. These effects have proven to be disastrous in aquatic environments, and action must be taken against it.


How do cosmetics and cosmetic waste affect humans and their health?

 Cosmetics themselves, as well as the waste produced by them has been shown to both directly and indirectly affect people. For example, heavy metals such as “lead, arsenic, mercury, aluminum, zinc, chromium and iron,” though restricted in many countries, “are found in a wide variety of personal care products including lipstick, whitening toothpaste, eyeliner and nail color” and have been linked to “cancer, developmental and reproductive toxicity, organ system toxicity, [and] bioaccumulation” (“Environmental Concerns”). Directly, using products with these heavy metals can result in serious health issues; however, as they can bioaccumulate in environments, these chemicals may be ingested unintentionally through seafood consumption. This in turn could severely affect the seafood industry, damaging the economy. Another ingredient that can affect humans is microbeads, found in many cosmetics. According to scientists, “there often are tiny bits of plastic in the fish and shellfish we eat,” and though the exact effects that microplastic ingestion has on humans are relatively unknown, research has shown that “”They block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output” in aquatic organisms (Royte) Similar to the indirect effects of heavy metals, increased microbead flow into the ocean could damage the seafood industry, as fish will either die or be full of plastic particles. Additionally, though health effects are relatively unknown, one can speculate that they will a similar or worse impact on human health as they have on aquatic life. A final ingredient known to affect human health comes in the form of fragrances, found in many perfumes. In addition to being linked to “organ system toxicity, reproductive toxicity and bioaccumulation,” studies have found that, in samples of perfume, “There [are]…[an average of] four chemicals per perfume tested known to disrupt human hormones” (“Environmental Concerns”; Lee). Found in many other cosmetics, hormone disruptors can result in severe health issues. Reproductive toxicity can result in miscarriages and developmental problems, possibly leading to a generation with increased health issues. Additionally, if these chemicals were to enter aquatic environments, they could be ingested by sea life and indirectly absorbed by humans. Though cosmetics can severely affect the environment, their effects on human health and living are not to be ignored and may only increase in severity with increased use of cosmetics.

What are organizations doing about cosmetic waste?

Many cosmetics companies, new and old, small or huge, unknown or unbelievably popular, have taken action against the rising problem of cosmetic waste. According to the Independent, “One brand leading the force is Aveda, a botanical hair and skincare brand, which has made sustainability a priority when it comes to packaging,” becoming “the first beauty company to use 100 [percent] post-consumer recycled polyethylene terephthalate” in their packaging (Morgan). Because most beauty brands use so much plastic to package their materials, the cosmetics industry as a whole is a huge contributor to the global plastic problem. By choosing to use recycled materials in their packaging rather than manufacturing thousands of pounds of new plastic for their products, Aveda is working to reduce their contribution to the plastic problem and encouraging other companies to follow suit. Others have chosen to focus on the products themselves, choosing natural, environmentally friendly materials over synthetic chemicals. One example comes from a farmer in Australia, who used “the leftover hydrosol” from his tea-tree farm “as a base for a moisturiser for fellow farmers” (Schremmer). This moisturiser has two main benefits: one, it is more natural and contains no harmful chemicals, unlike other products on the market, and two, it reduces the waste from the tea-tree oil industry. By repurposing the hydrosol by-product, this farmer not only prevents it from going to waste but also reduces the need for less environmentally friendly products, encouraging many other companies to make the switch from synthetic to all-natural materials. Another example of repurposing agricultural waste comes from New Orleans, where Dr. Changmou Xu and other scientists have been working to repurpose pomace, or “grape waste,” which “may be detrimental to the environment ” into “dietary supplements, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics” (“From Landfill to Lipstick”). This not only replaces the need for toxic chemicals in a variety of cosmetic products, it also reduces the amount of waste from the wine and grape industry. In the future, pomace may become the go-to material for all types of cosmetics. Though many large-scale cosmetic companies have yet to switch from chemicals to natural ingredients, smaller companies are paving the way for the environmentally friendly future of cosmetics.


How can we prevent cosmetic waste?

 Preventing cosmetic waste from developing into a bigger problem than it already is requires everyone, companies and consumers alike, to make sacrifices. One way for consumers to make a difference is to purchase from companies with sustainable packaging, such as “Lush, which recently launched ‘Naked Shops’ in Milan and Berlin offering packaging-free cosmetics…, British-owned Neal’s Yard Remedies, which packages its products using glass bottles, jars and 100 [percent] post-consumer recycling plastic…,” and Aveda, already a leader in sustainable packaging, which plans “to utilise agricultural waste… to make new forms of plastic that today are not commonly recycled” (Morgan). Though these companies may be more expensive than more mainstream brands, it may be worth the long term benefits of reducing the plastic waste from the cosmetic industry. Another example of a company working to reduce plastic production is “Kjaer Weiss, a Danish makeup brand,” based around metal cases with swappable, biodegradable trays of product (Borunda). Since many cosmetic companies rely on disposable plastic compacts and containers, large amounts of plastics can stack up over time. By only having the product itself as being disposable, Kjaer Weiss and other companies is paving the way for a new era of reusable cosmetics containers.  Lastly, disposing of cosmetics responsibly is an easy way to keep both product and packaging out of the environment. Organizations such as TerraCycle have partnered with beauty companies such as Garnier, where they accept almost all types of cosmetics and “once collected, the personal care and beauty packaging is separated by polymer type, cleaned, and extruded into plastic pellets to make new recycled products” (“Personal Care”). This prevents the plastic bottles, palettes, and applicators from going into the landfill and potentially blowing into the ocean. It provides recycled plastic to manufacturers, who can reuse it when making new packaging rather than using fossil fuels and other resources to make brand new plastic. Donating one’s empty cosmetics to a recycling program is an easy way to reduce one’s impact on both the issue of cosmetic waste and the issue of ocean plastics as a whole.

Works Cited

  • Borunda, Alejandra. “The Beauty Industry Generates a Lot of Plastic Waste. Can It Change?” National Geographic, 18 Apr. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/ 2019/04/beauty-personal-care-industry-plastic/.
  • “From Landfill to Lipstick: Grape Waste as a Cosmetic and Food Ingredient.” American Chemical Society, 19 Mar. 2019, www.acs.org/content/acs/en/pressroom/newsreleases/2018/march/from-landfill-to-lipstick-grape-waste-as-a-cosmetic-and-food-ingredient.htm.smea.uw.edu/about/student-blog/blog/the-dirty-truth-about-clean-beauty/.
  • Lee, Sarita D. “Analyzing Specific Health Hazards in Perfumes by Identifying Ingredients Using Gas Chromatography- Mass Spectrometry.” Vanderbilt University, 29 Apr. 1970, wp0.vanderbilt.edu/youngscientistjournal/article/analyzing-specific-health-hazards-in-perfumes-by-identifying-ingredients-using-gas-chromatography-mass-spectrometry.
  • Morgan, Jessica. “Is the Beauty Industry Doing Enough to Tackle Plastic Pollution?” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 31 Jan. 2019, www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/beauty-industry-plastic-pollution-environment-climate-change-cosmetics-a8697951.html.
  • “Personal Care and Beauty Recycling Program.” TerraCycle, 5 Feb. 2016, www.terracycle.com/en-US/brigades/personal-care-and-beauty-brigade-r.
  • “Plastic Microbeads.” Australian Government | Department of the Environment and Energy, Commonwealth of Australia, 23 May 2018, www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/plastics-and-packaging/plastic-microbeads.
  • Royte, Elizabeth. “We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?” National Geographic, 16 May 2018, www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/ plastic-planet-health-pollution-waste-microplastics/.
  • Schremmer, Jessica. “Tea-Tree Farmer Develops Zero Waste Business Using Leftover Materials.” ABC Rural, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 27 June 2018, www.abc.net.au/news/rural/2018-06-27/tea-tree-farmer-develops-zero-waste-business/9910510.


Works Cited with 5 Ws

“Environmental Concerns.” Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, circa 2015, www.safecosmetics.org/health/environment/.

What: This page displays links to other pages, providing information on the various chemicals in cosmetics that can cause environmental problems. The website uses mostly plain, professional fonts and uses pictures of each harmful ingredient to draw the eye. Additionally, each section about each chemical has a list of references at the bottom with links to the sources. The publishing organization, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, has been founded since 2004.

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Who:  The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a subproject of the larger Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, is an organization working to make the cosmetics industry safer by educating the public about the harms of these chemicals, encouraging them to demand change. They’ve led several campaigns pressuring cosmetic companies to remove toxic ingredients, including petitioning Revlon in 2013 and forcing them to remove formaldehyde-releasing chemicals from their products.

Where: The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics specializes in collecting information about the dangers of specific cosmetics and their ingredients. Originally a branch of the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, they likely have experience with the effects of carcinogens on human life. Founded on the belief that safer cosmetics products are necessary and that companies should be transparent on what ingredients go into these products, the Campaign hopes to one day eliminate harmful ingredients from cosmetics altougher.

Why: This message was sent in an effort to both inform audiences on the dangers of specific cosmetics and to persuade the public to take action against the problem. In addition, they strive to convince companies to remove these chemicals from their products. The intended audience is the general public, likely concerned adults, based on the average level of language throughout the piece. The message represents the points of view of consumers and groups who want to take care of themselves and their families through non hazardous cosmetics. Interestingly, the views of cosmetics corporations, possibly providing explanations for the use of dangerous chemicals, are not represented.

When: This source was published in 2015, about four years ago. In this time, some new information about harmful cosmetics in cosmetics may have been discovered, but the basic ideas of the article are still accurate.       

Morgan, Jessica. “Is the Beauty Industry Doing Enough to Tackle Plastic Pollution?” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 31 Jan. 2019, www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/beauty-industry-plastic-pollution-environment-Climate-change-cosmetics-a8697951.html.

What: The page is a news article depicting the environmental effects that the beauty industry has. It is  organized into short, informational paragraphs and has photographs of cosmetics as well as links to other sources scattered throughout. The fonts are a simple serif, relying on red text to draw the eye to titles, links, and captions. The article is published by the Independent Digital News and Media, which was first founded in 1986.

Who: Though the article was published by the Independent, the author herself, Jessica Morgan is an online journalist, certified by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. She has worked at several other media outlets, including ELLE and Stylist. Specializing in lifestyle articles, she has written several other articles about the cosmetics industry and its effects on society.

Where: The author, Jessica Morgan, has experience writing about the cosmetics industry and how it affects our modern world. This likely gives her special insight to the harmful effects that it has not only on society but also on the environment through dangerous chemicals and excess plastic. Additionally, having written for several fashion magazines such as ELLE and Stylist, she has personal experience with the fashion industry as a whole.

Why: This message was sent in an effort to both inform audiences of the environmental effects that the cosmetics industry has and persuade audiences to change their habits when it comes to purchasing cosmetics. It was likely intended for the general public, based off the average language level, attractive web page and the fact that it was posted on a relatively popular online news outlet. Similar to many sources on the topic, the article represents the concerns of those who are concerned about the environment and the future of our planet. The views of large companies, possibly with an explanation for such excess plastic usage, are left out of the source.

When: This article was written in January 2019, less than six months ago. Though some new discoveries have been made in that time, it’s likely that all of the information is up to date.


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