If you stop and look around your shower or makeup area, you’ll notice something. Every product we use comes in some form of plastic packaging, bottle, or tube; and each has its own logo, colors, and marketing messages. Take it all in for a moment. All. Of. It.
This is how it started for me back in 2002. The mishmash of logos and plastic bottles was not pretty. Each one shouting that they were “All-natural” or “Now with 50% more” or “BPA-free” — bright pink (for ladies, ugh) or “eco” green. So much visual shouting, so much clutter, and so many natural and eco claims. It stopped me in my tracks.
My next thought was: if everyone had this much plastic in their households, what did it mean to our planet? I started crunching the numbers.
Here are some facts on everyday plastics:
1. Recycling is a myth. We’d love to believe that recycling is the answer to all that plastic that gets produced for packaging, but the startling reality is that only 9% of plastic produced gets recycled. That means 91% goes where? According to this National Geographic article, 12% gets incinerated, and the remaining 79% ends up as waste — in landfills and the ocean. Considering plastic takes 400 years to breakdown, that is a scary number. That means when you “recycle” your plastic tube or bottle, chances are that plastic isn’t getting recycled at all. Stopping excessive plastic production at its source is the only solution.
2. Plastic waste is killing our oceans. And the animals that live in them. It’s estimated that 700 species of marine animals ingest or are impacted by plastic waste. That means every sea animal, from plankton to whales, is negatively impacted by plastic waste. This is especially true of sea birds and turtles who mistake plastic for food with dire consequences. I’m sure by now you’ve heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that is the size of Texas — the largest of five accumulations of trash in our oceans. At the rate we are going, oceans may be a wasteland in less than 10 years. Humans dump 8 million metric tons of plastics into the ocean every year — that is on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that are already in our oceans. That’s like dumping one New York City garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year. Ocean cleanup efforts can’t keep up with this. Ocean Conservancy has more startling details, but it’s clear that curbing plastic production is the only viable solution.
3. The US sends its trash problem to other countries. Yup. We can’t handle our own trash, so we send it away. To countries that also can’t handle their own trash. It’s dirty, labor-intensive work where we’ve essentially taken advantage of societies that have fewer rules, like China, Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal. And if you’re guessing the whole business of recycling has been monetized, it has. The result is a health and environmental crisis globally. The Guardian has taken on this topic in their series The United States of Plastic. It will make you think twice about recycling.
4. Most plastic becomes trash within a year, and those plastics take 400 years to breakdown. Did you know that much of the plastic waste in the ocean is trash from the 80s and 90s? That’s because we still haven’t seen the impact of more recent trash as it makes its way to the ocean. That’s a scary prospect if you keep in mind that we’ve steadily created more and more plastic waste each year since then. To make matters worse, as plastics breakdown they become micro-plastics (or they start out as micro-plastics due to beauty products like exfoliators and toothpaste that are made with tiny plastic particles.) Scientific American explains that these plastic particles inevitably get ingested by clams and fish with devastating effects on their populations, as well as entering our food chain. They contain hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA) impacting growth and immune function. They can be found in our soil too. Micro-plastics are in the water we drink and the air we breathe.
5. Plastic was innovative — in 1950. There’s no doubt that the invention of plastic was innovative for its time. It has transformed healthcare, food safety, and helped curb aviation and vehicle emissions through light-weighting. Unfortunately, we never thought about the long-term consequences of over-production, or how far we’d take it into the everyday consumer economy. It seems we’re in love with plastic production — everything from water bottles and straws to all those cute makeup samples. Although some intrepid companies are researching plastic-like containers made from sugarcane or corn, which solves the fossil fuel problem with plastic, they still aren’t the answer since some petroleum-based plastic is usually also used, and these substances have been plasticized so they still don't break down easily. Until we have better solutions, we have to consider cutting down the source of plastics altogether, pressure brands to progress, and curb our own plastic buying habits.
A lot has changed since 2002, and there are more alternatives on the market now than ever before. It's not that hard anymore to make swaps and it doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, I discovered that most of my plastic-free swaps actually kept me under budget. As I began to research, I realized I wasn’t alone. The plastic-free lifestyle is a growing movement.
Once I began this process my thinking about everything shifted. Suddenly I had space for the things I cared about, space to think, and space for compassion. I felt good about the things I was using — a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one, a metal razor instead of a plastic one, a shampoo bar instead of shampoo in a plastic bottle. I even simplified my house cleaning routine to one reusable bottled I use over and over with my own vinegar-based cleaning mix.
My routine got simpler, even if I was still doing the same things, I felt calmer starting the day, and I felt a sense of ease knowing I was making less waste. It was a principled way to live. And it fed my soul.
This is why I set out on this journey, which ultimately led to launching Principle Beauty. It's a way to be kind to myself and others, set an example, tread as lightly as possible on our planet, and live a fuller life as a result.
You can read more about the challenges of developing a truly sustainable beauty brand in this article by Beauty Independent, with plenty of quotes from yours truly.
Our vision for the future is that every chain store on a mass level has a fair amount of plastic-free product options on their shelves. We’ll get there. In the meantime, every little effort helps and perfection is not the goal (spoiler alert: it's impossible.) Be kind to yourself as you grow.