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Compostable beauty: the future of sustainability or a greenwashed buzzword?

As we face a plastic packaging crisis, we explore whether compostable beauty is a viable alternative, or whether it is too good to be true

Plastic is everywhere. It’s in the deep ocean, the Arctic, our tap water and our lungs. It’s a crisis. To tackle the problem, some brands have started using recycled plastic or ‘ocean-bound’ plastic packaging. But the thing is, it’s still plastic, and it can only be recycled two to three times before the quality degrades and it becomes waste yet again. Spotting the flaw in this plan, beauty brands are increasingly directing their resources toward finding an alternative option, focusing on compostable materials like seaweed, wood pulp and corn.

Brands and manufacturers including Plus, On Repeat, United and Free, Ethique and April all have compostable materials in their line-ups and Haeckels is the latest to join the fray. The Margate-based skincare brand wants to inhabit a “post-plastic beauty world” and is reintroducing itself under four new pillars – Haeckels Skin, Haeckels Home, Haeckels Fragrance, and Haeckels Lab – with the former packaged entirely in Vivomer. The natural, vegan material, which is made with the help of microbes, feels and looks like plastic but it’s completely home compostable.  

Beauty consumers will likely have seen marketing for both ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable’ packaging, and it’s important to understand the difference between the two as they’re often conflated. Biodegradable materials can be broken down in the natural environment but there are no time limits on how long it can or should take, while compostable materials require specific conditions and are subject to time scales for decomposition. Essentially, all compostable materials are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable materials are compostable.

As brands seek to stem the flow of plastic pollution, packaging products in a material that will return to nature rather than destroy and suffocate it seems like the obvious choice, but is compostable packaging too good to be true?

On Repeat’s refill pouches break down in compost in 34 weeks, April’s packaging is certified for home composting and breaks down in approximately six months, while Haeckels’ Vivomer packaging has been independently tested in all environments and will “contribute to the biosphere in as little as 48 weeks”. 

But brands’ claims of their materials being compostable should always be treated with caution. Some products can be composted in a compost heap at home (indicated by certifications like OK compost HOME), while others 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. The issue is, there just aren’t enough industrial composting facilities to process compostable packaging at scale. So, a brand can say its materials are technically compostable, but it simply cannot guarantee they’ll actually 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. “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.” In fact, in A Plastic Planet’s report, The Compostable Conundrum, personal care and cosmetic packaging are on the red list, with the use of compostable materials not recommended because they don’t help carry food waste into the food waste system and feed healthy soil.

“We need to look beyond straight swaps from plastic to compostable materials to systems that avoid single-use entirely,” continues Sutherland. Haeckels hasn’t transitioned to compostable packaging wholesale. Its Home and Fragrance lines, for instance, will use an updated type of glassware as the brand found its customers were more likely to refill and reuse glass packaging in those situations. The decision to keep the glass in some instances and use Vivomer for Skin was based on a business-wide impact report which weighed up factors like waste and carbon emissions.

“We’re champions of new materials, so I think it was always expected that we would move into compostable packaging, but there's a lot of compostability noises out there, so we have been very focused on testing, testing, testing. All our compostability claims have been checked by a company called Provenance. It’s all legit,” says Charlie Vickery, managing director of Haeckels, adding that the company looked at the packaging like a twig in the sense that no matter where it ends up, it would always turn into food sources and contribute to the soil. 

April sends its supplement refills in NatureFlex, a compostable material made from wood pulp, and the decision came down to making the easiest swap for its audience. “We believe that our compostable refill pouch is a convenient solution that makes it easy for the customer to make a sustainable choice,” says Helena Aru, growth director at April. The brand considers it a better option than a refill and return scheme as it involves less effort for the consumer, therefore making behaviour change easier. “We don’t know beforehand exactly where our customers live or if they would drive a car to drop off the empty jars, so it would give us less control and make it harder to calculate our total impact,” Aru continues.

Calculating impact and knowing the facts is definitely in order when it comes to making sure materials do what they’re promised to do. Dr Imogen Napper, a marine conservationist with a PhD in Marine Pollution, put compostable and biodegradable carrier bags to the test and found that while the compostable bag she tested disappeared completely after three months in a marine environment, it was still present in the soil 27 months after being buried. 

Plus, which uses home compostable pouches and mailers says its goal in designing compostable packaging is to “help advocate for making composting mainstream” and signposts its audience towards a pre-written letter to send to government representatives. Applying pressure to step-up composting is necessary, after all, the better the infrastructure, the better the efficiency of composting. But it’s important that brands don’t flood the system with ‘compostable’ materials when there aren’t sufficient facilities to deal with them because it will end up being extracted from the waste stream like any other plastic then incinerated or landfilled.

Brands moving away from plastic and using materials that actively give back to the environment is positive in an industry predicated on waste, but a healthy dose of scepticism will come in handy if we’re going to make sure ‘compostable’ doesn’t become the next greenwashing buzzword. Compostable is great, in the right context and if it actually becomes compost, otherwise it’s just a smokescreen or, as Sutherland puts it, “a diversionary sticking plaster on the path of real change.”