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Environmental impact of beauty industry

What is the beauty industry's impact on the environment?
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

From containers to packaging, plastic is ubiquitous in the beauty industry. With more plastic being recklessly discarded into the natural environment, serious concerns have emerged.

Breakdown of plastics Image source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Woods Hole Sea Grant

Most plastics are non-biodegradable which means that it does not decompose naturally. ‘Photodegradation’ can break down plastics but it will take somewhere between 10 and 600 years, depending on plastic type.

Loss of Marine Life

The beauty industry is a significant contributor of plastic waste. Today, an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year. There is so much plastic in the sea, a 2019 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has discovered that some parts of the ocean have seven times more plastic particles than fish.

Since plastics are slow to biodegrade, they accumulate in the oceans and deal a death blow to marine life. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency, over 633 marine species are now known to be impacted by plastic pollution. From entanglement to blockage of the digestive tract to ingestion of toxic microplastics and microbeads, plastic pollution upsets the delicate balance of marine life. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has warned that if the prevailing waste trend persists, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Ocean Chemical Pollution

A 2012 study by Arizona State University found Minnesota waterways to be contaminated by cosmetic ingredients like triclocarban and triclosan. Found in soaps and sanitisers, these anti-microbial ingredients pollute fresh waterways and are toxic to aquatic bacteria. Triclosan, in particular, prohibits photosynthesis in diatom algae which is vitally important for photosynthesis.

Air Pollution

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are air pollutants found in a range of beauty products, including perfumes, deodorants and hair sprays. A 2018 study has revealed that these products are significantly contributing to carbon dioxide emissions. The study revealed that about half of the VOCs emitted in 33 urban cities can be traced to the use of beauty and household products. Apart from the emission of VOCs, the carbon footprint of the beauty industry is hard to ignore. Most of its products and packaging are made from fossil fuel-derived materials. Even with natural ingredients, the extraction, formulation and packaging of beauty products may be carbon-intensive.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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