For consumers looking for easy-to-understand sustainability indicators, the “made of recycled content” stamp seems fairly straightforward. And within beauty packaging, it’s almost become de rigueur. Analysis done by Euromonitor International found that “recycled” claims were by far the most commonly used packaging sustainability claim used by global skincare brands, appearing 8.5 times more often than “can be recycled”.
But what complexity lies behind these recycled content promises? As it turns out, quite a lot. “In the end, it is waste you’re using to put back into products, [and there are] a lot of challenges that come with that,” says Sandra Breuer, a senior sustainability manager for the beauty care division of Henkel.
Sourcing and processing aside, what has recently come to light is the need for industry standards around formulations and quality of post-consumer recycled plastic, specifically for use in cosmetics and other products such as household cleaners. Packaging needs to be safe from a human health and environmental point of view and this is especially critical for the beauty industry, where products come into contact with the skin, and are often washed down the sink. Such standards already exist for recycled plastics destined for food packaging – so-called “food grade” – but not for recycled plastic that might end up in your shampoo bottle.
Enter CosPaTox (which stands for cosmetics, packaging and toxicology), an industry consortium formed in March 2021. The group aims to develop safety standards for post-consumer plastic recyclate (PCR) for cosmetics and some cleaning product packaging, and their modus operandi is very much aligned to sustainability. How so? The more assured companies can be that PCR is safe and high quality, the more of it they’re going to use, says Doris Peters, project manager at CosPaTox. “For a shampoo bottle or container of floor cleaner, food standard [recycled plastic] is not really required,” she explains, but not wanting to take any risks, some companies were using it anyway. Meaning an excess of non-food grade recycled plastic potentially piling up. Without a standard in place, “we accumulate this huge [amount] of recycled plastics, but we cannot use it because it doesn’t meet the very high food standard”, she says.
So what sorts of undesirable things is CosPaTox looking out for in PCR? For one, chemicals that come with the recycled resin that could have an adverse effect on skin, says Peters. “Also, we look at those materials which may have a negative impact on the smell. That can be an issue when recycled materials are used.”
In the absence of industry-wide standards, what have companies been doing? Peters says larger companies will have their own toxicological standards in place, with their own in-house testing. Nevertheless, big players such as Henkel are still very supportive of the development of industry-wide standards. “Henkel was very active in driving the formation of CosPaTox,” she says.