The Body Shop is working with a company called Newlight Technology to come up with greener plastic bottles. There is no doubt about it. The biggest impact that the cosmetics industry has on the planet is the packaging it puts its products into. Most of the ingredients are readily biodegradable and with very few exceptions don’t have any harmful effects on the environment at all.
But when it comes to packaging, the bulk of cosmetic products are sold in plastic and plastic is definitely not a green material. In fact it has two distinctly ungreen attributes. For a start plastic, although most types do degrade, it degrades very slowly. So a chunk of the plastic that is floating around in the oceans causing a nuisance for wildlife and frankly making the planet look untidy comes from cosmetics and personal care. But even when it does degrade the damage is still being done. It breaks down ultimately to carbon dioxide. It doesn’t happen as quickly as the petrol in a car, but the chemistry is identical.
So it is good news that there are now moves to produce plastics that are derived not from fossil carbon but from alternative sources. Ideally you would extract carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere to make your plastic. One way to do this is to use plant material as a source of plastic. The plants extract carbon from the air and can be processed by chemists to produce plastic. This is fine but the processing can be polluting and using land for non food purposes doesn’t feel right in a world where people are hungry.
In principle it should be possible to get carbon dioxide directly from the air by straight chemical means. The Newlight technology isn’t quite there yet. It uses methane from dairy farming. It is good to prevent the methane getting into the atmosphere and it is a waste product so it doesn’t prevent food production. In fact making plastic from methane is a well established technique but this has previously been done using methane from coal or natural gas. The new method uses enzymes, potentially are much more flexible method.
The other innovation that is needed is to modify the chemistry of the plastics so that they break down a lot quicker. This is not too difficult to do from the point of view of the chemistry, but probably needs some thought about the way the plastic is actually made so that the shape into which it is moulded lends itself to rapid degradation. (Think about an ice cube. The smaller the cube size the faster it will melt.)
So it is good that there is some new thinking going on , and even more importantly some action being taken. It would be good to get to the stage where the cosmetic industry has no adverse impact on the environment at all. It won’t be easy but I think it can be done.