The makeup and cosmetics industry is one of the world’s largest, worth an estimated $716 billion by 2025. It’s one of the largest eCommerce sectors, with consumers all over the world routinely shopping online for brand-name beauty products.
Ecommerce means long-distance delivery, which in turn means packaging – typically single-use plastic packaging – and the beauty industry is responsible for around 120 billion units of packaging every year.
Disposable packaging is problematic both for eco-conscious consumers and for business waste management, where it can add to landfill taxes for businesses unable to work with their suppliers to eliminate non-renewable plastic packaging.
Alternatives to plastic have been the focus of research for decades, and options include materials like paper, bioplastics and bamboo.
Plastic waste in the beauty industry
Up until just a few generations ago, packaging across many industries was either directly reusable (e.g. glass milk bottles) or naturally recyclable/biodegradable (e.g. cardboard and paper).
During the second half of the 20th century in particular, a combination of factors led to a seismic shift in the way we package consumer goods. Customers had more disposable income, a better quality of life, and an “I want it now” approach to shopping.
In turn, manufacturing processes became increasingly mechanised and automated, big beauty brands produced much greater quantities of their products, and single-use plastics became a cheap, widely accessible and stable way to package cosmetics.
Makeup products come in many different forms, from dry powders, to waxy products like lipsticks, to liquids like nail polish. Because of this, makeup packaging is a complex and varied industry too, heavily focused on plastic and glass containers, many of which are very small.
This means that there is a disproportionate amount of packaging for an often minimal product — just a few millilitres in the case of nail varnish, mascara and so on.
The per-unit packaging is also only one part of the total packaging waste, which also includes the bulk cardboard boxes and padding (e.g. foam and polystyrene) that may be used during wholesale deliveries.
With the rise of eCommerce, we do more of our shopping online, including for makeup products of various sizes and values.
As such, more and more packaging is being used in the ‘final mile’ of direct-to-door customer deliveries, rather than wholesale packaging ending with a single bulk delivery to bricks-and-mortar retail premises.
It’s not all bad news: as well as bamboo makeup packaging, there is also a growing number of paper-based options, such as corrugated paper cushions that can protect makeup products during delivery.
However, consumers don’t always have the ability to check upfront to find out what packaging materials will be used on their order, making it hard for eco-conscious shoppers to prevent plastic makeup packaging from appearing at their door, even when buying from reputedly sustainable makeup brands.
Bamboo skincare packaging is arguably even more of an easy switch than a complete shift to bamboo makeup packaging would be. Many skincare products come in much more standardised containers, with outer packaging (e.g. cardboard) that is already easily recyclable.
Again, the challenge is to maximise the use of bamboo, rather than incorporating it as an aesthetic element without producing truly sustainable packaging. For example, it’s not uncommon to see plastic jars with bamboo lids described as ‘bamboo packaging’.
Consumers are increasingly aware of when they are being misled and marketed to, and when a brand is exhibiting a genuine desire to adopt sustainable, eco-friendly packaging and other practices.
For manufacturers, there is a good chance to increase profits by reducing packaging costs. Reusable bamboo containers could herald a return to ‘refill’ packs of skincare products in biodegradable packaging, instead of disposable plastic pots and jars that are only used once.
Plastic packaging forms a physical barrier to prevent contamination and oxygenation of hygiene products, so it’s reasonable to see why reliance on plastic hygiene packaging has continued even as some other parts of the health and beauty industry have embraced more sustainable alternatives.
Hygiene products, in particular, create a pollution risk, as many are unwrapped in bathrooms and even in public toilets, where there may be no suitable litter bins available for safe, hygienic and eco-friendly disposal of the wrapper.
As a result, a wide range of hygiene products and their packaging find their way into the sewers and out to sea, contributing to the vast swathes of non-biodegradable plastics found where ocean currents converge, as well as to the quantities of microscopic plastics found in fish, seabirds and up into the human food chain.
However, bamboo hygiene packaging has plenty of untapped potential. Once processed and laminated, bamboo can produce strong, flexible materials, suitable for delicately wrapping hygiene products and keeping them safe until they are used.
Bamboo’s natural antibacterial properties make it a great candidate for all kinds of personal hygiene products – making hygienic bamboo packaging a potential high-growth segment for the health and personal care manufacturing market in the remainder of this decade.
What is bamboo?
Bamboo is an evergreen perennial flowering plant. Scientifically speaking, it consists of the Bambusoideae sub-family of the Poaceae family of grasses, and includes the largest grasses on Earth.
There are three taxonomic tribes of bamboo:
- Arundinarieae (temperate woody bamboos)
- Bambuseae (tropical woody bamboos)
- Olyreae (herbaceous bamboos)
Disposable bamboo packaging is normally made using the sheath of the plant, which falls off naturally as it matures. The sheaths are collected, boiled and laminated, before being pressed into moulds to form the desired shape.
Bamboo cosmetic packaging is usually single-use disposable, but unlike plastic, bamboo packaging can be composted and recycled, allowing it to biodegrade quickly without special recycling facilities or energy-intensive processing required.
What are the benefits of bamboo packaging?
Let’s look in more detail at some of the biggest benefits of bamboo beauty packaging:
Strong and flexible material
Bamboo has impressive tensile strength, even higher than that of steel, making it resistant to tension or ‘pulling’ forces.
Its flexibility allows it to be formed into a wide variety of shapes which are both kind to the products packaged inside, while also protecting them against external forces.
This is not only beneficial for bamboo cosmetics packaging, but also in other industries.
Consumer electronics giant Dell has adopted bamboo packing to cushion delicate components during delivery, and includes the ‘chasing arrows’ recycling symbol due to the widespread recyclability of bamboo packaging materials.
There are different definitions of biodegradability, but in general biodegradable packaging materials must break down relatively quickly in landfill sites or the open environment, with no harmful residues or remaining contaminants left behind.
Unlike many packaging materials, which leave behind nanoplastics and plastic microbeads, which in turn enter the environment, water sources and food chains, bamboo can be made fully biodegradable.
It’s even compostable, allowing typical domestic quantities of biodegradable bamboo packaging to be broken down as part of a healthy compost heap or in a dedicated composting container, before being used as fertiliser to revitalise shrubberies.
Bamboo has a raft of environmental benefits. It puts down a complex root structure that helps to clean the water table naturally, leading to purer water sources downstream from the bamboo plantation.
It’s also water-efficient when being processed. The only water lost during production is due to evaporation; everything else can be retained and used again, and the processed bamboo can be air-dried in warm weather so little to no electricity is needed.
There’s also bamboo’s carbon capture potential. Estimates vary widely, but typical figures suggest that a single bamboo plant can store around 2 tonnes of carbon per year, while a hectare can sequester as much as 17 tonnes, according to some sources.
Is bamboo sustainable?
Relative to other materials, bamboo production is incredibly sustainable. Some species can grow nearly three feet (90cm) daily – equivalent to 1.5 inches (3.75cm) per hour. Bamboo actually thrives on being harvested, growing new leaves on its cut stems that provide extra energy, via the root system, to accelerate the growth of new shoots.
Combined with a carbon capture capability ten times that of trees, it’s hard to argue against growing more bamboo, whether it’s for use as a packaging material or simply to serve as a carbon sink.
Finally, bamboo is rich in silicate acid, which makes it difficult to burn. This is good news for commercial bamboo forests, especially in light of climate change, rising global temperatures and the growing risk of wildfires.
All of this means that in uncertain times, bamboo production is one of the most future-proof options, not only for sustainable bamboo packaging but for all manner of uses. For a global beauty industry keen to perform better on sustainability, it’s the obvious first choice.