When we first started talking about the business that would become JunkTheory, we had come to an unsettling realization.
Despite the amazing social missions, or the attempts to eliminate nasty ingredients or materials; all of the amazing companies we had worked for across the consumer goods categories, were ignoring the same thing - what will happen to these products when the customer is done with them?
Specifically in the beauty industry, where Allie was consulting at the time, more than 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging are produced annually, the majority of which is destined for landfill, incineration, or most devastatingly, our ecosystems (think: oceans).
So we challenged ourselves to create a business that would help eliminate the junk.
This brings us to a trip to Jakarta and the beginning of our journey to find the most sustainable packaging option for the future.
Option 1: Ocean Waste Plastic
After much research, we were obsessed with the idea of using Ocean Waste Plastic for our packaging, and in early 2020, we embarked on the journey to thoroughly understand the process.
In theory, ocean waste plastic is a recycled plastic that has been collected from the ocean, cleaned, sorted and recycled into new, usable plastic - essentially giving what was once junk, a new life.
Unfortunately, that theory is incredibly difficult to execute in reality. It has become our understanding that plastic that has been floating in the ocean degrades rapidly, which in turn renders the vast majority of it unusable as a feedstock for consumer goods.
Let us be clear about one thing - this plastic must be cleaned from our oceans and JunkTheory will forever support the cleaning of our oceans until no more plastic is floating.
However, what we saw on our trip, and later learned, made it clear that continuing to use plastic as single-use packaging for ANY products, is not the answer and that any claim that this floating plastic can easily be recycled is sadly misleading.
In Jakarta, the concept of “out of sight out of mind” no longer applied. We walked along beaches that were covered in plastic as far as the eye could see. We stood on islands of plastic waste, formed entirely from floating plastic packaging including things like personal care bottles and food containers. We collected and cleaned what we could, but as you could imagine, the expansiveness of the problem was overwhelming. What for us was just a few hours, is a daily reality for families living in communities along the water’s edge.
We left with two overwhelming feelings. The first: plastic that is terrorizing our ecosystems and communities must be dealt with urgently. The second: plastic should never be used as a packaging material for single use products.
When we think about the reality that every piece of plastic we use today will outlive us by 500 or more years, it’s a completely mind boggling reality. How could something we use for an hour, a day, a week, or even a few months, ultimately live on the planet (as landfill or floating junk) for centuries.
This realization forced us to continue to search for a better packaging material.
Option 2: Biodegradable or Compostable Plastic Resins
There are absolutely amazing and innovative materials being used in packaging today, not least of which are biodegradable or compostable plastic resins. These are materials that avoid the use of petrochemicals and instead use things like corn sugars and wood pulps to create strong plastic resins that can be molded into various types of packaging. The most interesting promise of these materials, is that at the end of its lifecycle, the packaging can biodegrade or be composted.
We spent weeks exploring all the various resins available - we particularly liked the wood pulp and algae based packaging resins.
Unfortunately, after much research and consulting of industry experts we learned that these awesome materials had a bit of a mixed promise.
For packaging materials that claim to be biodegradable or compostable, it’s important to acknowledge the very specific conditions that are required, which are oftentimes only achieved at an industrial composter. This means that the promise of tossing a piece of cleaned and empty skincare packaging into the backyard compost bin, is very likely not going to result in the composting of that bioresin packaging.
So in order for this material to be successfully composted, it must be taken to an industrial composting facility in your community, which in reality many people do not have access to (nor are they familiar with). This leads to a majority of these bio resins being disposed of in regular waste streams where they end up in landfills or the incinerators.
Option 3: Glass
The current gold-standard for sustainability in the beauty industry is glass and naturally we explored the merits of using this centuries old and trusted material.
Glass is highly recyclable - in fact it’s more often recycled than both Option 1 and Option 2. It’s also endlessly recyclable without losing quality, whereas plastics have a limited lifespan before the quality of the material has degraded and is no longer safe to use. Glass is also made from an abundance of natural materials, like sand, soda ash and limestone (instead of petrochemicals or synthetic materials). It’s inert, which means it will not leach and when capped off properly, glass is impermeable to air and moisture.
As with any material, there are both pros and cons. While luxury brands often choose glass because it’s significantly heavier than plastics, that weight contributes to a higher carbon footprint through transportation. Because it is a more fragile material, more packaging is needed to prevent breakage and resulting in a higher risk that product would be destroyed (it’s also less fun to accidentally drop a glass jar in your bathroom than it is to drop a plastic one). Glass packaging is also rarely 100% glass as it usually requires a plastic cap or pump.
With a very balanced list of compelling pros and cons, we kept glass on the table as an option while we continued to explore for a material that might be more often recycled, less fragile, and easier to transport.
Option 4: Aluminum
Once a dominant packaging material, aluminum was cast aside with the advent of plastics following WWII. Today, when walking the aisles of any beauty store, it’s a material that is quietly absent from almost every shelf.
We became obsessed with the prospect of resurrecting aluminum in the beauty industry and our research brought us a promising list of pros and cons.
Unlike glass, Aluminum is incredibly lightweight offering a more earth-friendly transportation footprint. It’s also incredibly durable and will dent but not break, safeguarding from higher rates of product being damaged or destroyed and a less precarious material in the bathroom.
It also has a higher recycling rate than plastics, bioresins, and glass. In the United States, while recycling systems are forced to prioritize recycling based on what has the highest economic value, aluminum (and cardboards) are at the top of the list. Aluminum is an infinitely recyclable material which means it can be recycled an unlimited amount of times without any compromise in quality or integrity.
Recycling aluminum also uses 95% less energy than production of primary aluminum (that is mined). Which brings us to our main “con” for aluminum that cannot be ignored - the manufacturing of aluminum is energy intensive. It requires double the energy to mine and manufacture aluminum than it does glass and this was one of our major considerations when deciding which packaging material we would commit to as an investment for the future.
Our Final Choice: Aluminum
It was a very long and winding road to get to our ultimate packaging decision, but ultimately, Aluminum became a clear winner for us.
For all the reasons mentioned above, it’s an incredibly dependable material that allows us to nearly eliminate plastic from our packaging completely. In order to keep our jars and bottles air-tight, there are tiny inserts in each cap that are made of approximately 1 gram of plastic.
It is our goal to continue innovating with aluminum so that we can eliminate the need for plastic entirely. It is also our goal to source entirely recycled aluminum to bring our company’s carbon footprint down dramatically. This is something we are already working on and hope to deliver to you soon.