Spare a thought for the environment the next time you go shopping for personal care products. There are lots of eco-friendly alternatives, says Margaret Jennings
It might be the last place on earth where we would expect to have guilty feelings about our impact on the planet — chilling out in a warm bath, having a refreshing wake-up shower in the morning, or brushing our teeth before we go to bed at night.
We are more likely to do a double-take at the supermarket, than in our bathroom, when we think about plastic pollution. As we reconsider single-use water bottles, for instance, or how the food we buy is wrapped, we may presume we don’t have much choice around those habitual personal care products we toss into our trollies.
But your plastic toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, for example, are each estimated to take at least 400 years to decompose. And while those shower gel, liquid soap, shampoo, conditioner, and deodorant containers may be recyclable — provided you have taken them apart and cleaned them properly before you bin, they are all arguably contributing towards mountains of unnecessary plastic waste.
According to recent estimates 79% of plastic waste ever produced now sits in landfills, dumps or in the environment (as litter); 12% is incinerated, and only 9% recycled.
The prediction that by mid-century, the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish, ton for ton, has become one of the most- quoted statistics and a clarion call for us all to do something about it.
And it’s not just about the packaging — what about the contents?
When the Irish environmental charity VOICE last year carried out an audit as part of their No Home for Plastic programme, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), they found that 63% among 139 households across the country, were aware that many facial scrubs, shampoos, shower gels and toothpastes contain tiny bits of plastic called microbeads.
“When asked to take a quick look at the ingredients in their shower gel for instance, 52% found that it contained those microbeads,” says Abigail O’Callaghan-Platt, project manager at VOICE.
Hopefully those down-the-drain microbeads will be eliminated from our stores sooner rather than later: Ireland got the green light from the EU last October to introduce a bill to ban on the manufacture, import, export or sale of products containing intentionally added plastic microbeads, being washed down the drain and into the world’s rivers, lakes and seas each year, and which affect not only aquatic life, but also ourselves.
In fact, an EPA-funded study published in 2017 found not only were microplastics to be found throughout Irish freshwater environments, but traces could even be found in our drinking water.
Since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as all the preceding years combined – a third of which is leaked into nature, according to a study commissioned last year by the environmental charity WWF International and carried out by Australia’s University of Newcastle.
It’s all a bit overpowering and depressing. But making greener choices in our everyday life doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task, says Dublin-based lifestyle journalist Jo Linehan, who is passionate about sustainability.
As producer of the podcast, she says: “Last year I focused on slowly but surely swapping out my beauty and toiletries for greener alternatives. I have met so many amazing people, small businesses and makers, driving the green revolution in Ireland and I’m currently working on my second series focussing on some key leaders and pioneers who are paving the way for all of us to live a more eco-friendly life.” If you want to reduce the amount of plastic you generate in the first place, then look out for example, for solid versions of soap and conditioner, advises the website mywaste.ie run by the regional waste management offices, on behalf of the Department of Climate Action, Communications and the Environment.
The website gives lots of links and tips including opting for compostable wood or bamboo toothbrushes (and giving your old plastic ones a new role in life, “as cleaning tools for fiddly jobs”), and investigating toothpaste tablets which are package free and can be purchased in health stores and online.
“In this day and age, there’s absolutely no reason why one should still buy shampoo and soaps in plastic bottles. We have a wide range of natural and truly effective shampoo bars, body and hand soap bars,” says Dublin-based Pat Kane who owns Reuzi, an online and retail store. “And you get to try some of the most wonderful products made by local businesses that truly care about our environment.
A mum of two boys aged five and 20 months, Pat says she prioritises products that are made from local, clean ingredients and that come in compostable packaging.
She also works with businesses, schools and community centres, running sessions on sustainability. “A lot of people still buy from big and well-known brands because they have been told that their products work, but very few really stop to read the list of ingredients and question ‘what does that actually mean to me?’ And guess what? Most of these products still come in plastic bottles and containers. So, until the big businesses decide to change the way they make and package their products, we will continue to see a large amount of plastic sent to landfill,” she says.
Tipperary-based Nicola Connolly launched her skincare business Nunai, in September 2018, after working as a sustainability consultant with traditional communities in South America. On her site, for instance, you’ll find organic compostable facial cleansing ovals which are washable and have been tested to be ‘reusable up to 200 times’.
“Through my work in South America, I realised that every decision we make in our lives has an impact on the wider world. So, it was a no brainer to build sustainability into every element of what we do at Nunai and to ensure that people and the environment are looked after at every point along our supply chain,” she says.
One woman who has first-hand experience of how cleaner personal care products can influence not only our environment but our individual health, is Galway-based Dawn Mayne, a mum of a five-year- old boy and three-year-old girl, who is founder of the sustainable brand website The Clean Beauty Edit.
Diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis in 2009, she also ended up with hormonal imbalances and a further diagnosis of Osteopenia after years of being on medications.
“In 2018 I started seeing Professor Moira O’Brien, who is the president of the Osteoporosis Society in Ireland and she encouraged me to look further at my diet and at the products that I was using on my skin and around the house,” says Dawn. “Her advice led me down a very clean path and then I picked up Dr Alejandro Junger’s Clean Programme book and that gave me the final pieces of the puzzle that I needed to take back control of my health.
“I did a detox programme, completely changed all my personal care products to clean ones and took any harsh cleaning products out of my house. I also ditched all my medications. Within three weeks I felt healthier than I ever had done. My health is back in my hands and it’s worth the effort of clean living to feel this good. I no longer have any pain, my bone loss has slowed down, my hormones are back in balance and I have no need for medications.”
As a result, she researched and set up her business in January 2019, which focuses on clean and sustainable brands, which she says has been growing in strength since then.
They are among the growing number of retailers offering sustainable alternatives to personal care products such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorants and items such as cotton buds, facial wipes, cotton make-up remover pads and sanitary pads and tampons, which are all contributing towards polluting our planet.
It is estimated that period pads, for instance, are made of up to 90% plastic – equivalent to four plastic carrier bags, while tampons and their applicators also are made of polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP).
And where do they end up? Aside from the fact that it takes period products, make-up pads and cotton buds at least 100 years to decompose in landfill, when we also carelessly dispose of them we are further contaminating the environment.
Last year, Irish Water cleared more than 6,000 sewer blockages around the country which occurred as a result of cleansing pads, cotton buds, facial wipes, tampons and their applicators and sanitary pads being flushed down the toilet.
Hopefully as we become more educated about our actions, we will take responsibility for them, says Abigail O’Callaghan-Platt, of VOICE.
“I feel there is a growing interest in reducing plastic use, but that many have yet to take the step from interest to action, in terms of bathroom plastic use. “
Abigail points out that refill shops and stalls are popping up countrywide as an alternative to buying more bottles, together with the other alternative personal care products. “These are simple and easy switches households can make to reduce their bathroom plastic use,” she adds.
When she is giving workshops, Pat Kane says: “I try not to discourage listeners with the scare of the issue – positivity is key! I believe each one of us must create a culture of hope – not fear, when it comes to sustainability.
“Behaviour change doesn’t happen overnight. We are learning in Ireland about alternatives that are out there, but a lot more from an educational point is required – and we also need large corporations to jump aboard – such as the supermarket chains – to offer, for example refill services for personal care products.”
1. Try to understand the amount of waste you generate on a daily basis when it comes to your beauty / personal care routine. Go through your daily beauty routine, from brushing teeth, washing face, showering, post-shower, and beyond, and count up all the different items you use. That should give you a good picture of what needs to be done.
If you were to replace all your plastic tubs and bottles with glass counterparts, how many products would that be?
2. Educate yourself. Read labels, learn about ingredients — what’s safe and what’s questionable — and research alternatives to plastic packaging.
3. Look for ‘naked’ products, packaging-free options around your area.
4. Sometimes it just works best to use products that are liquid. But you can still reduce plastic waste by using a refillable container. Find places where you can bring old bottles to be refilled with shampoo and soap as well as other products such as moisturiser and deodorant cream. We are seeing an increase of shops that hold that type of stock across the country and that’s extremely positive.
5. Learn how to DIY the ‘basics’: think of body butters made from coconut oil, almond oil and essential oils, or a body scrub made from sugar or even ground coffee leftovers, for example. Trust me, this will save you money and give your skin all the natural goodness!
6. Go for plastic-free toothbrushes — it’s one of the easiest swaps available and quite inexpensive too.
7. Start with small steps and add new habits as you go. Don’t be afraid to try and fail, you can always start again. The main thing is to do something about reducing the waste we generate on a daily basis.
You can carry out an audit of how much plastic you use in your home, organised by the VOICE campaign, No Home for Plastic, by going here.