Can Seaweed Solve the Beauty Industry's Plastic Problem?

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Seaweed Will Heal Your Skin and the OceanAnastasiya Mihailovna - Getty Images

I’m known as the one with all the products in my friend group. Run out of a serum? I got you. Need to switch to a tinted SPF for summer? I have three options you can pick from. As wonderful as it is to educate my friends and save them some money in the process, I still suffer from a guilty conscience about the environmental impact my limitless stash holds. I know there is an ugly side to my collection that even my favorite foundation can’t cover up.

Plastic remains a significant problem in the beauty industry, despite increased focus on sustainability. According to the EPA, the personal care and beauty sector generates a staggering 120 billion units of packaging globally each year, with the majority going unrecycled. Only nine percent of beauty packaging is properly sorted, while about 70 percent ends up in landfills. This makes the reality of beauty consumption feel bleak: you love makeup, skincare, and fragrance, but your conscience is very aware of every throw-away, single-use item—from makeup palettes to pimple patches.

Rather than resigning to a life without your favorite highlighter, consider the possibility of maintaining your look while leading a more sustainable lifestyle. Now, more than ever, consumers are dialed into the dangerous impact of ocean pollution, climate change, animal cruelty, and the role beauty brands play in the problem.

Today’s shoppers are more discerning, particularly when it comes to wasteful packaging, and brands are responding with innovative solutions like seaweed that can help the beauty industry become more eco-conscious.

The way beauty brands package recyclable materials can be confusing.

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Recycling within the beauty industry is a problematic area, because most skincare packaging is plastic-based. “There’s a whole class of hard-to-recycle items that can’t be recycled curbside that people aren’t aware of—from airless containers, pumps, and mixed materials to any packaging smaller than 2 inches in diameter,” explains Allison Mabbott, co-CEO & co-founder of Junk Theory. Since this isn’t widely known, people assume that when they toss jars and tubes into the blue bin, they won’t end up in a landfill. But, sadly, that’s not accurate.

Recycling is a complex issue with different regulations per state, a matter the beauty industry regularly capitalizes on. “One way is by confusing consumers into thinking non-recyclable packaging is recyclable by taking advantage of the different recycling imagery that allows them to appear greener than they are,” explains Will Collins, purchasing and sourcing manager at Badger, an organic skincare and mineral sunscreen company. We are all familiar with the chasing arrow symbol, called a triskelion, denoting a product is recyclable. There are a few different symbols for the resin identification code, that closely resemble the triskelion, confusing consumers. “Have I seen the triskelion on stuff that can’t be recycled? Absolutely,” confirms Collins.

Brands like Sway and Junk Theory are fighting against big beauty’s plastic dependency.

California-based startup Sway established itself as a leader in innovation when it officially debuted breakthrough technology for biopolymer resin, designed to replace flexible plastics. “Sway was born from the idea that the everyday materials we interact with can go beyond sustainability, which keeps impact at neutral and instead, actually replenishes the social and ecological systems harmed by climate change and plastic pollution,” explains co-founder and CEO, Julia Marsh. Its patent-pending thermoplastic seaweed resin, appropriately named TPSea, is microplastic-free, compostable, and 100 percent bio-based, placing us squarely in a new age of sustainable packaging—and our routines and planet will be better for it. The technology is the first of its kind and is a flexible film that’s available in multiple colors and resembles the texture of plastic. “[It’s] strong, adaptable, and suitable for use in a wide range of packaging applications, from fashion to food to beauty. Ninety-eight percent of plastic is made from petroleum, and never fully biodegrades; instead, it simply breaks down into microplastics which pollute nature and our own bodies,” Marsh says.

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Doing better for the environment is also at the center of Mabbott’s vision for Junk Theory, a beauty company that launched last summer with three products: the $28 juniper biome cleanser, a $58 chamomile hyaluronic moisturizer, and a $72 overnight moisturizing treatment. As she puts it: “The beauty industry is incomprehensibly wasteful.” The brand’s bottles and jars contain one gram of plastic, compared to the average skincare product, which has about 150 grams of plastic packaging. Instead, Junk Theory uses aluminum packaging that’s lightweight, durable, compact, and infinitely recyclable. No, really, the brand holds the highest recycling rates in the industry—“higher than plastic and glass,” she says.

Is seaweed packaging different from traditional sustainable beauty packaging?

Sway uses seaweed to package its products because it’s abundant, thrives off sunlight and ocean water, and requires very few inputs, meaning their products mimic the compelling qualities of plastic without the downsides. “Like plastic, Sway packaging is strong, heat sealable, and printable. Our first product, Firstwave, is a totally clear material best suited for replacing plastic product windows,” CEO Julia Marsh says. Their newest product, TPSea Flex film (launched in February), has a frosted finish and is more durable, making it a suitable replacement for the plastic polybags, mailers, and retail bags used by fashion, beauty, and home goods brands that currently represent 30 percent of the industry’s single-use plastic packaging. And no, there’s no seaweed smell.

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Alternatives do exist, like industrially compostable packaging made from potatoes, sugarcane, corn, or wood. But seaweed has such a rapid rate of regeneration and greater potential to scale faster than other plant-based resins. “Under the right conditions, some seaweed can grow as much as two feet in a single day, making it one of the fastest regenerative plants in the world, especially compared to other leading plant-based resins on the market, like sugarcane and corn,” explains Allison Turquoise Kent-Gunn, a cosmetic packaging sales director and consultant. Planted-based solutions have even more limitations—from being resource-intensive and having a long decomposing cycle to simply not performing well. Seaweed decomposes naturally in six months after use. “You can just mix the bag in with your food scraps or backyard compost,” says Marsh.

What about aluminum packaging?

Metal has been seen as an ideal choice, mainly because it easily recycles into new uses without compromising on quality. Typically, plastics can only be recycled a few times. “Not only is aluminum more frequently recycled, about four times more, but 70 percent of aluminum has been in circulation for decades,” shares Mabbott. Aluminum also won’t break in your bathroom during your morning and evening skin care routines.

What roadblocks are there in sustainable packaging?

As with most things in life, it comes down to cost. Right now, it will always be cheaper to use the other preexisting sustainable packaging options. “Given the higher price point, there isn’t always enough demand to justify a regular supply, and this problem becomes exponentially more difficult when you consider alternatives to plastic,” explains Collins..

Mabbott agrees, noting that “metal packaging is more expensive and requires more stability and compatibility testing since it’s a less common packaging material in the industry.” But, are these reasons to continue using a material that harms both people and the planet? “Absolutely not,” she says.

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Elena Goncharova - Getty Images

Seaweed-based products might also fail without a responsibly designed supply chain that includes farming, processing, infrastructure, and conservation. “For seaweed to fuel solutions at the scale of the plastics problem within the beauty, food, fashion, and animal agriculture industries, production must increase sustainably, prioritizing the social and ecological benefits,” Marsh says.

This gets tricky, as seaweed packaging will also need to ensure its film maintains essential barrier properties, mechanical strength, and shelf-life preservation, which are crucial for industry standards and consumer satisfaction. As a result, Junk Theory’s manufacturing is at risk since they can only use aluminum that’s already in circulation. Creating new aluminum is off the table for the brand, as it is incredibly environmentally destructive; new aluminum has twice the global warming impact of a new plastic product. Despite this, the International Aluminum Institute estimates that the demand for new aluminum is expected to increase by up to 40 percent by 2050, because brands want to be seen as an environmentally sound choice.

What impact do these innovations have on the beauty industry’s future?

It’s all about progress, not perfection, and a good first step is companies acknowledging environmental problems. “You could use Junk Theory every day for 25 years and still have a smaller plastic footprint than if you used just one plastic skincare product,” explains Mabbott. The company has plans to continue to hold itself accountable, as they’re always working on environmental improvements. “It’ll never sit well with us that products we use for a month or two could end up polluting the planet for 500-plus years,” Mabbott says.

Sway also presents a natural way forward, and seaweed is proving to be a viable option for beauty packaging. These approaches are all helping the beauty world evolve and change the narrative by actively working to end the environmental crisis that has become synonymous with the industry.

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