Modern life runs on plastic. When you become aware of the large quantities of plastic washing into the ocean, choking marine animals, you suddenly start seeing the material everywhere: It envelopes the food in our kitchen, it is shaped into animals and building blocks in our children’s nurseries, it’s in our shower curtains.
But there’s a small movement brewing among designers and entrepreneurs to cut out single-use plastic from the products we use every day. And over the past month, we’ve seen how they are coming for our bathrooms.
Last year, a startup called Myro enlisted the help of two industrial designers from a firm called Visibility to create a deodorant system that also includes a reusable case, in which you insert new pods. Just last week, a brand called By Humankind launched with the goal of ridding personal care products of single-use plastic. It debuted with three items: Shampoo that is cold-pressed into a bar, mouthwash tablets that you mix with water, and a deodorant that comes in a reusable container. By Humankind received $4 million in seed funding led by Lerer Hippeau, signaling that VCs believe there’s the potential for an anti-plastic brand to scale quickly.
And it’s not just startups that are working toward cleansing your bathroom of plastic. My colleague Adele Peters recently reported on an exciting and ambitious effort by a coalition of giant conglomerates including Procter & Gamble and Unilever, which own many of the largest personal care brands on the market. A company called Loop has designed reusable deodorant bottles for Dove, Degree, and Axe, along with Pantene shampoo, Crest, and OralB mouthwash. (Loop will also work with food brands to create reusable containers for things like Hellman’s mayonnaise and Ranch dressing.)
Why the bathroom?
You don’t realize it until you really look for it, but there’s plastic everywhere in your bathroom–and it’s all disposable. Cyrill Gutsch, a former designer and the founder of the environmental startup Parley for the Oceans, points out that plastic was first engineered a century ago to be a material that would exist forever. This was extremely valuable for making things that needed to be durable, like furniture or car interiors. But it never made sense to use it in items that were designed to be disposable, which includes most of the items in our bathroom, many in our kitchen, and even the fast-fashion garments we wear, which are so inexpensive that consumers often only wear them between seven and 10 times before chucking them out.
Companies did have reasons for making disposable items out of plastic. When plastic became mainstream in the 1950s, it was so cheap to manufacture that brands saw it as a clever way to bring new convenience to customers’ lives. In a famous Time cover from 1955, a family is standing in front of a trash can, disposable plastic plates, forks, and straws in the air like confetti, along with the headline “Throwaway Living.”
But this convenience had a cost that many of those companies didn’t envision. Much of our plastic ends up in oceans. Scientists predict that if we continue polluting the oceans at the current pace, our coral reefs will be dead by 2030 and all marine life will be dead by 2048. That could mean not only the extinction of many beautiful ocean creatures, but also the potential end of ecosystems that many people depend on for survival. This is a problem that will soon threaten human life.
Recycling is not enough
Many of us believe that we’re already tackling the plastic problem by recycling our shampoo and mouthwash bottles. Of course, recycling the disposable plastic bottles we use is the right thing to do. But it’s not enough.
Despite a growing worldwide effort to recycle, only a small proportion of people actually consistently recycle every single plastic item they use. Even then, only about 10% of items placed in a recycling bin actually end up being recycled because so much of it is too contaminated with food or chemicals to use. Since plastic does not biodegrade, it sits in landfills forever, and can get swept into water streams when it rains, or in a gust of wind. In countries where waste management systems are poor, even more of this plastic gets swept out to sea.
Today, the world produces an estimated 300 million tons of plastic a year, half of which is single-use. Our plastic consumption keeps going up year after year, adding to the already massive amount of plastic we have already made. Experts believe about 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, which marine animals mistake for food, choking and poisoning them.
Produce plastic alternatives — and make them pretty
The real solution is to stanch the overproduction of new plastic in the first place. And this is what we’re seeing with the new wave of eco-friendly personal care brands. But the packaging is not without headaches. It may be more expensive, at least up front. And switching from disposable to reusable does introduce the minor inconvenience of ordering refills and inserting them. So to persuade consumers that non-plastic alternatives are desirable–and worth the extra money and effort–companies have to invest in innovative design and branding.
Myro’s reusable deodorant cases, for instance, are minimalist, with a round polygon shape. The brand’s name is subtly engraved on one side and does not stand out. Myro seems to be targeting consumers who care about how their everyday products look on their bathroom counter, by offering five trendy color options, like blush pink and slate gray.
By Humankind’s products are also designed to be attractive, with a dearth of wording and several color options. The mouthwash tablets, for instance, come in a little round container that’s either light green or charcoal.
Focusing on the nuances of shape and color makes sense for these brands on another level. They are making containers that are designed to live in customers’ bathroom for years to come. Beauty can’t be an afterthought.
Given the scale of the problem, will any of this really move the needle? Gutsch is optimistic, in part because the swell of innovation around eliminating single-use plastic from bathroom products could persuade other product categories to also reconsider packaging. As I reported earlier this year, we’re seeing similar buzz in the world of food storage, as startups work to create reusable food wraps and bags.
Ultimately, the end goal here is for plastic-heavy industries to come up with new alternatives. Will our homes be remade in biodegradable materials overnight? Of course not. But for now, we can tackle one room at a time. And the good news is that we’re well on our way to ridding our bathrooms of single-use plastic.