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Refactory tackles the complicated issue of cosmetic packaging

A UK-based firm is focusing on giving a second life to the most difficult-to-recycle items we throw away every day.

Packaging used for health and beauty products are extremely difficult to recycle, mainly because they are comprised of various different materials.

This is a problem, considering we throw away around 100 billion of these items each year, but the companies who produce them are also guilty of discarding entire pallets worth of products before they even make it to store shelves.

Most recycling plants accept just two out of the seven types of plastic used in the health and cosmetic industry, simply because they don’t have the capability to deal with them. But things are changing in the UK thanks to an organisation called Refactory.

Its ethos is that any and every material is capable of being reused or upcycled. It transforms plastic waste into sheets that resemble plywood and constructs them into planters, furniture, bookshelves and more.

Let’s take a look at their process.

Credit: Refactory

It all starts with gathering the stuff we throw away.

One-third of the waste that ends up at Refactory’s facilities comes from waste collection boxes in stores such as The Body Shop or Boots Pharmacy. Refactory is working with these brands to help them improve their waste management output, while simultaneously improving their sustainability credentials.

However, a massive 70 percent of the waste arriving at Refactory comes directly from product manufacturers. Though they don’t exactly shout about it, beauty companies frequently throw away entire shipments containing hundreds of recalled, expired, or mislabelled products.

Because of the secrecy around this wasteful practice, it’s near impossible to know how many unused products are destroyed simply because of a defect or a poorly printed label globally. It’s a shame, considering much of the product inside is often perfectly fine.

Packaging for perfume bottles has always been a no-go zone for traditional waste processing facilities due to the fact that they contain alcohol solutions and are highly flammable. But Refactory is happy to deal with them – smashing, rinsing, and sending off the bottles to nearby glass and metal recycling companies for processing.

Other bottles and tubes, such as body wash and shampoo for example, are machine-shredded into small pieces and washed multiple times at Refactory’s site. Around half of the water it uses for cleaning is rainwater, undergoing 3-4 cleaning cycles before being drained.

This makes Refactory stand out, as standard recycling plants may reject plastic bottles and containers based on the fact that they are ‘dirty.’ Most will end up sent to landfill or incinerators, rather than being put through a cleaning cycle.

Credit: Refactory

Once Refactory has shredded these plastics, workers then sort them to find any remaining metals and glass. A magnet later helps to collect any pieces that are missed, before the plastics are ground further and turned into a powder.

Larger shreds of plastic are combined with the powder, then heated up and pressed by a machine. The result is a multi-coloured sheet of ‘plywood’ that can be cut into various sizes and used as a building material.

The only downside to this process is that microplastics are released when the sheets are cut. For this reason, Refactory does all of its cutting and building in-house, before delivering the finished product to its buyers.

If any customers want to discard of their products or transform them into something new, Refactory will book a collection and complete this process. This ensures that no plastic material that leaves their plant is wasted or disposed of incorrectly.

Refactory has donated hundreds of bookshelves to schools and libraries through its scheme. It has also made walls and flooring for public bathrooms and office spaces, but this is not how it makes its money.

Companies pay Refactory to complete their waste collection and processing, a procedure that has only become profitable after two years of operation.

Steven Carrie, the group director of Refactory said, ‘It’s really refreshing to see these brand’s approaches [to recycling]. It’s happening in a way that’s not been done before, for the very first time.’

Reiterating the company’s mission, he continued, ‘I don’t believe there’s a material out there that does not have a route to recovery or recycling.’

Well done to the Refactory team for their determination in tackling a waste problem that few others wanted to! Let’s hope we see more initiatives like this in the future.