Some of us dedicate Instagram stories to them, others pore over YouTube videos that sing their praises. And when we’re done with our own “empties”— the beauty products that have earned a seal of approval by being, you guessed it, emptied—most of us feel a glow of satisfaction: into the recycling bin, and onto the next one. Take that, climate change!
Except that that warm glow is likely down to your moisturiser, and has little to do with the virtue associated with recycling: a measly 4.5 per cent of plastic waste currently makes its way through the recycling chain to be repurposed, and chances are your serum bottle isn’t in that cohort. It’s probably sitting with its 152,150,000 single-use plastic beauty product pals that also end up in Australian landfills each year.
Those hand cream tubes you threw in the recycling bin last week? They went straight to landfill. So, too, any toothpaste tubes or serum droppers, not to mention single-use sheet masks or their equally single-use plastic packaging.
All these products – merrily ‘wish-cycled’ by so many of us – can’t be processed in weekly kerbside collections. Even worse, when they’re tossed into recycling bins, they end up contaminating batches of otherwise perfectly recyclable products and dooming the whole lot to carbon-emitting landfill.
But it’s not all melting ice caps and dead polar bears: as consumers wise up to the beauty industry’s intensive carbon footprint, more and more brands – from little-known indie lines to designer skincare and even big department stores- are launching take-back schemes and refillable packaging.
“It’s no longer acceptable for brands to turn a blind eye to the global situation,” says Emma Lewisham, whose eponymous skincare brand is at the forefront of sustainable beauty. “Businesses and brands need to step up and own the problem and own their products from start to finish.”
The future of beauty needs to be “circular, regenerative and transparent,” and refillables are a vital part of the solution, says Lewisham.
This year, Emma Lewisham became the world’s first carbon-positive and 100 per cent circular-designed beauty brand, with her skincare products as popular with environmentalists (Dr Jane Goodall endorses the brand) as they are with models and beauty editors (including this one).
But how do refillable beauty products work?
Say you’ve finished your favourite Emma Lewisham Illuminating Oil Cleanser, instead of chucking the whole thing out, you pull out its inner pod and return it to the company (they encourage you to wait until you have four empties before posting, to save on carbon emissions), where they will clean, sterilise, refill it and keep it in circulation. You’ll pop a new pod in and go on your glowing, hydrated way. But now with a bonus sense of virtue: with just one refill you’ve helped reduce carbon emissions by up to 70 power cent, energy use by 60 per cent and water use by 45 per cent. Your contribution to landfill? Zilch.
The global SUP problem is the sole reason that Aussie start-up Zero Co exists. Co-founder Mike Smith came up with the concept after trekking for days in the remote mountains of Krygyzstan. He reached an alpine lake miles away from civilisation – only to find the lakebed completely covered in plastic, “I knew right there and then that I wanted to be a part of the solution to this (SUP) problem”.
To achieve that, Zero Co operates a similar model to that of Emma Lewisham, where customers can return used pouches (at no cost) to be cleaned and sanitised by the brand’s Australian-first ‘pouch recovery machine’.
“We need to move towards a ‘circular economy’ and, by adopting habits or consuming brands that support this movement, you’re actively choosing to protect our planet,” says Smith.
In other words, see ya, superfluous cellophane, bespoke boxes and pretty pipettes.
Forward-thinking beauty brands
Other brands that offer refills or recycling schemes include Aesop, which recently trialled a refillable bar in its South Yarra store; Armani, which launched refillable fragrance My Way in 2020, Tata Harper, which has been offering refillable beauty since 2020, and Fenty Beauty.
But what about your favourite facial oil that isn’t refillable yet? And what of products like mascara and lip balm?
Recycling options do exist, they’re just not found in your yellow bin. Terracycle, a US-based recycling company, partners with brands that produce hard-to-recycle products (beyond beauty, think pens and blister packs) and you can often find ‘bins’ at Australian supermarkets, department stores, chemists and other outlets (find your closest here).
These are all extra steps, sure. But it’s worth it, says Zero Co’s Smith, who reminds us that small steps lead “towards a bigger change.”
Top 10 Refillables
Emma Lewisham Illuminating Oil Cleanser Refill There’s a reason this brand has a cult following after 3 years…it’s seriously good. We can’t go past the – it’s a daily treat for your skin. (And look out for the brand’s new
Rose Inc Blush Divine Radiant Lip & Cheek Color – Refill Perfect for on-the-go touch ups for your lips and cheeks – we love the Ophelia.
Zero Co Handwash Combo Can’t get enough of this brand. Affordable, efficacious and a sensory delight (the new body range has been developed by Dr. Kate Forbes, the ex-Global Head of Product at Aesop).
Aesop Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash No bathroom should ever be without this cult hand soap. Aesop recently trialled a refillables bar with much success in their South Yarra, VIC, store with plans to roll out more this year.
Chanel Revitalising Cream Refill Moisturiser Super luxe, super comforting and packed with the brands signature camellia flower.
L’Occitane Almond Shower Oil Eco-Refill Yet another reason to love this shower-oil. Perfect for the winter months ahead. The handy refillable means you’ll never be without. Your skin and the planet will love you for it.
Vela Days Active Compound – Refill Canister An all-in-one daily serum that helps keep your skin on track thanks to hemp seed extract and oil.
Fenty Beauty Icon Refillable Semi-Matte Lipstick A timeless red lippy that’s the perfect balance between matte and creamy.
The Daily Routine Hand Soap Starter These coconut husk foaming wash pods drop into the ‘keeper’ bottle for a foamy fresh wash.