how to recycle your beauty products

Recycling is a tricky business. There are seven different categories, regulations that vary by state—even city—and accessibility challenges to boot. In recent years, recycling has become even more difficult because of a lack of buyers willing to repurpose the world’s recyclables. Recycling may not be the saving grace solution it was once envisioned to be, but there’s still value to properly disposing of the non-biodegradable products we use. 

Next to my kitchen, the place I encounter the most plastic and other synthetic materials is in my beauty routine. Face masks, mascara, and eye shadow are just a few examples. Beauty items, in particular, come with an assortment of packaging and attachments that can make knowing what to do with them quite confusing. 

There’s no guide out there to help you know what’s recyclable and what’s not. So to make the process less daunting, I’ve put together a list of common beauty and personal care items that can leave us questioning, “Trash or recycle??” 

INTERNATIONAL PRODUCTS

Have you ever turned over a product made outside of the US and noticed the recycling symbols are different? Although there is such thing as a “universal recycling symbol”, this indicator often glosses over the nuances most recycling programs abide by. In order to know which products can be recycled and which must be trashed, pay close attention to the different symbols on the product packaging. Note that any item can have more than one type of recyclable material in it. The challenge is translating in order to find the North American equivalent symbol. 

Here are helpful links for products with recycling symbols from Korea or China. If you’re encountering another language, I recommend searching for that country’s local recycling website and translating it to English. Ultimately, when in doubt, your default should be repurposing or trashing the item(s) to avoid causing issues for recycling workers. 

AEROSOLS 

Most aerosols are made of aluminum—a highly recyclable material. As long as your containers are empty, aerosols can always be recycled

EYELINER (liquid and/or in plastic) 

Ooof. I wish I had better news for you but unless you have easy access to a Terracycle box, this is going to be a trash. Like many beauty items, the tiny plastic pieces in eyeliner containers can get caught in recycling machinery. My best piece of advice going forward is to go for a wooden eye pencil, like this one from Elate or any cruelty-free drugstore brand. 

SPRAYS 

This one is two-part. Pumps and nozzles will always go in the trash. The actual bottles though can be recycled. I also suggest reusing spray bottles in their entirety for DIY cleaners, essential oil sprays, or for repackaging larger liquid products (think rosewater or hand sanitizer). 

EYE SHADOW 

Have an old eye shadow palette lying around? I can bet most of us do. To dispose of these products, the process is a little more time-intensive and can require some research. Youtuber Shelbizleee has a great video on cleaning out palates and sorting the various types of plastic. Basically, the rule of thumb is that hard plastics tend to be recyclable while flimsier forms are likely trash. 

LOTION 

Like we touched on above, pumps go in the trash. Bottles in recycling. But let’s say you’re dealing with a soft squeeze lotion bottle, what then? Like toothpaste, the best approach is to first cut the bottle at its top and use every last drop. While some hard plastic caps can be recycled, the soft plastic tubes, unfortunately, cannot. Separate the different plastics, rinse and dispose of them accordingly. 

MASCARA 

There are some great take-back programs in place for mascara, like those through Bare Minerals, Pacifica, and Terracycle. But if a recycling program isn’t available or accessible to you, mascara tubes unfortunately will need to be trashed. Hold on to the wands though—in addition to reusing them for eyebrow contouring, you can also check with wildlife organizations, like Wands for Wildlife, to see if they could find a use for your old brushes. 

NAIL POLISH 

I know they’re glass bottles and in theory should be recyclable but alas, no, always trash. 

That’s the rundown of how to dispose of popular beauty items. Something I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments or DM me on IG @dressedtosustain.

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