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Opinion – we should approach compostable beauty with caution

With greenwashing tactics increasingly difficult to navigate, environmentally conscious consumers remain sceptical when faced with new sustainability buzzwords adopted by brands pushing cosmetics and skincare products.

As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, so too do the companies eager to generate revenue in the age of hyperawareness.

Though it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in many circumstances this desire to keep consumers interested has amounted in a great deal of greenwashing, whereby products are touted as being eco-friendly when, in reality, they’re far from it.

This marketing strategy is arguably most prevalent within beauty, one of the planet’s worst offenders in terms of plastic pollution, yet an industry that appears to be upholding such tactics as using overly ‘green’ language on packaging to give false impressions of environmental devotion.

The most recent example of this being the meteoric rise in popularity of ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ cosmetics and skincare products, despite the difficult truth about their contribution to the current climate crisis.

For this reason, upon discovering that compostable beauty had begun inching towards the mainstream, with the brands already involved in its distribution calling it the ‘future of sustainability,’ I was sceptical.

But how does it actually work and is it right that we approach the concept with caution?

Biodegradable Natural Beauty Brands


A magical solution to the plastic packaging crisis?

Plastic is everywhere. For decades scientists, global leaders, and activists alike have been scrambling to remedy an issue that shows no signs of abating thanks to society’s evermore insatiable rates of consumption.

Unfortunately, our buy, use, bin outlook on the items we’re regularly encouraged to buy is only fuelling this further, especially when it comes to beauty, a sector that produces 120 billion tonnes of throwaway packaging annually.

Acknowledging that the waste this creates is catastrophic for the Earth, some brands and manufacturers have turned their attention to alternative options in an effort to stem the flow (because – as much as it pains me to say this – we can no longer recycle our way out of this mess).

These include incorporating compostable materials like seaweed, wood pulp, and corn into their offerings. Leading the fray in this sphere are Haeckels, On Repeat, Ethique, and April, all of which are keen to inhabit a ‘post-plastic beauty world.’

Composting: The Secret to a Beautiful Garden — Ted Collins Tree & Landscape

At present, Haeckels is at the forefront of this shift, after switching to using packaging made from Vivomer – a vegan substance made with the help of microbes abundant in soil and marine ecosystems that looks like plastic but is completely home compostable.

Close behind are On Repeat, whose refill pouches break down in compost in 34 weeks and April, whose packaging is certified for home composting, breaking down in approximately six months.

‘We’re champions of new materials, so I think it was always expected that we could move into compostable packaging, but there’s a lot of compostability noises out there, so we have been very focused on testing,’ says Charlie Vickery, managing director of Haeckels.

‘All our compostability claims have been checked by a company called Provenance. It’s all legit.’

Natural skincare brand Haeckels launch biodegradeable packaging


Or too good to be true…

Surrounded by buzzwords, it’s no surprise that conscious consumers repeatedly fall into the traps laid out by brands deceptively striving to make sales.

But with successfully identifying their meanings of utmost priority if we’re to ever navigate our way through the greenwashing tides, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ in particular, as they’re often conflated.

The first can be broken down in the natural environment without time limits on how long it can or should take.

The second requires specific conditions and is subject to time scales for decomposition, which is why brands’ claims of their materials being ‘compostable’ should always be questioned.

Yes, some products can be composted on a heap at home – indicated by certifications on the packaging – but in most cases, they will need to be sent to an industrial composting facility because they require a mixture of very high temperatures, high humidity, and oxygen to break down.

Edmonton Composting Facility - Wikipedia

And considering there simply aren’t enough of these facilities to process compostable packaging at scale, therein lies the problem.

On this note, though a brand can say its materials are technically compostable, it has no means of guaranteeing that it’ll in fact be composted, defeating the object entirely.

‘Understandably, brands and designers have jumped at the chance to use ‘compostable’ materials for their products,’ says Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet (whose latest report uncovered that the use of compostable materials by beauty is not recommended because they don’t help carry food waste into the food waste system and feed healthy soil).

‘But there is a very simple question to ask at the beginning of the design process: does it help get food and organic garden waste into our composting system? If the answer is no, then it probably is the wrong use.’

‘We need to look beyond straight swaps from plastic to compostable materials to systems that avoid single-use entirely,’ she adds. ‘Calculating impact and knowing the facts is definitely in order when it comes to making sure materials do what they’re promised to.’

Industrial Composting: What It Is and How It Works


So, to compost or not to compost?

Long and short, the answer remains unclear.

Of course, with the state of the planet in mind, every attempt to reduce our carbon footprint and be kinder to the Earth matters – no matter how small.

But as Sutherland alludes to, we need to be looking beyond, namely towards those with the power to influence tangible change.

Therefore, applying pressure to step-up the efficiency of composting across the globe with improved infrastructure is necessary so that brands aren’t flooding a system incapable of dealing with the level of compostable materials they are churning out.

Greenwashing in marketing & how to spot it | 2022 Examples

Until then, to prevent anymore plastic from being incinerated or landfilled, we, as consumers, must call for an industry predicated on waste to use more materials that actively give back to the environment.

‘Compostable is great, in the right context and if it actually becomes compost, otherwise it’s just a smokescreen,’ finishes Sutherland. ‘Or a diversionary sticking plaster on the path of real change.’

What is clear, however, is that a healthy dose of scepticism was indeed warranted.

Hopefully the days when we can fill our bathroom cabinets without giving it a second thought aren’t far off.


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