The small components and multi-material formats that make up the bulk of beauty packaging are notoriously complex to recycle. Pact, a US collective made up of beauty brands, retailers, and suppliers, is out to help the industry tackle its "packaging problem". Along with its collection and education strategy in North America, the organization is looking to upcycle obsolete inventory: an "untapped, massive source of material", says Pact Program Director Carly Snider.
Although the numbers are infinitesimal for the US market, non-profit collective Pact reports that it diverted 156,762 pounds of beauty packaging material from landfill in 2022. This is 14 times as much as it collected in 2021. Some 77% of the material—mainly glass and "high-value" plastics—PET, HDPE, PP—was mechanically recycled. These numbers are set to grow as so far in 2023 Pact doubled its number of collection points (currently it has more than 300 collection bins) thanks to a new partnership with Sephora in the US and Canada. The LVMH-owned retailer now has bins in every one of its North American boutiques to recycle "empties", a program it has dubbed Beauty (Re)Purposed. This is in addition to Pact’s existing partnerships with beauty retailers including Credo and Ulta.
Pact’s in-store collection initiative is conceived to be "brand agnostic": consumers can drop off their empty packs whether they purchased the product in the store or not. "This is in line with our industry-wide strategy; we believe that while beauty is highly competitive on most every point, sustainability and the climate crisis is so complex that we need to work together to solve the problem," Carly Snider, Program Director at Pact, explains to Formes de Luxe.
Pact Program Director Carly Snider says that the best-case scenario for packaging waste isn’t recycling, but refill/reuse solutions ©Pact
Change comes to down education
Yet Pact is designed to provide more than collection services. "We aren’t just a bin on the store floor, we provide a full educational service. A QR code on the bin links to educational resources, we train store staff and do activation campaigns with individual retailers. Pact’s mission is to be a vehicle for behavior change," notes Snider. Pact asks those that produce packaging to cover the costs, similar to an extended producer responsibility. "The industry needs to take responsibility for the packaging it is creating."
While the collection program (Pact also operates mail-back programs) is meant to inspire behavior change, the end game is to accelerate "smart" packaging design. "We are pushing the knowledge gleaned from our collection schemes back to the beginning of the supply chain, so that the industry knows where it can improve. If we can provide tool kits and education from the beginning, then we can make sure that best practices are passed on down the supply chain," Snider explains.
How it is that there is need for this kind of initiative, which should be the responsibility of municipal collection? "Municipalities are collecting the material through curbside recycling, but there isn’t a true mechanism to recycle it due to a lack of infrastructure and a lack of investment," she adds. However, Snider claims that a number of new policies regarding extended producer responsibility are being introduced in the US, with Europe having "paved the way".
The waste recuperated through Pact’s collection schemes is treated at three partner recycling sites (in New York, Kentucky and Chicago). The collective is looking to create a network of regional recycling hubs in the future, including on the US West coast and in Canada. For this project to come to fruition, higher volumes of packaging waste will need to be collected.
A QR code is provided on Pact bins, linking the users to educational resources online ©Pact
A hierarchy for packaging waste
Pact has established a hierarchy for the waste it collects. "Let’s face it: in a circular economy perspective, recycling is the last resort. We are starting there and aim to work our way up as ultimately the solutions are about reuse and refill."
Its initial focus is on mechanical recycling, and upcycling when possible. "If we can’t do that, molecular recycling is an option, but one that is both more energy intensive and more costly. We’ll leverage the technology if, and when, it makes sense," Snider explains. Pact has a partnership with Eastman on this front to recycle number seven plastics, such as ABS, which are considered very low value materials. However, the aim is to encourage the industry to stop integrating those materials in their packaging. "The more brands use high-value plastics the more it will tip the scales as far as investing in capital infrastructure for recycling schemes."
If molecular recycling is not an option for certain materials, Pact diverts the materials for waste to energy. "Clearly, waste to energy is not recycling. In the US numerous companies are leveraging ‘zero waste to landfill’, but in our eyes waste to energy is only a slight improvement on that. We want to give this material a second life, rather than burning it for energy."
Obsolete inventory: a hidden 'resource'
In addition to "empties", Pact sees the beauty industry’s obsolete inventory as a source of waste that urgently needs to be addressed. "Where are returns and expired goods going? Much of this is diverted to landfill or directly to waste to energy. But there is a lot of great uncontaminated material that represents a fantastic collection opportunity. If we can capture those millions of units, and I see beauty moving in this direction, the upcycling that we can do with that material is massive."
Ultimately, Snider says she’d love for Pact’s collection business to become obsolete. "That would mean that we would have done our job from the education perspective by sourcing and designing better packaging. And from there we can evolve to other solutions," she concludes. But she is also realistic: it’s sure to be a long road ahead.