Packaging is crucial to the beauty and personal care industry. It’s how a brand catches your eye on a drugstore shelf and keeps its products safe and sealed from contaminants. Unfortunately, a lot of that packaging is also plastic: In 2019 alone, the U.S. beauty industry produced more than 8.1 billion units of rigid plastic packaging, according to market research firm Euromonitor International, the vast majority of which is not recycled. A new beauty and wellness brand, called Ace of Air, aims to challenge this waste by operating with an entirely circular business model. After using up your Ace of Air moisturizer or serum, you can just ship the packaging back to the company to be sanitized, refilled, and used over and over again.
“We are a ‘buy the product, borrow the packaging’ brand,” says CEO Stephanie Stahl, Revlon’s former CMO, who cofounded Ace of Air with supermodel Petra Nemcova. Packaging matters for the beauty industry, she says, because it’s how you interact with a product, and it affects how that item looks on your vanity. But it also makes the consumer responsible for throwing that packaging away at the end of a product’s life. “So we said, you know what, you don’t need to own the packaging.”
Ace of Air will sell skincare—including moisturizers and serums—along with supplements, in reusable packaging made of stainless steel, food-grade ceramic, using fair-trade rubber for the seals and other packaging elements that are normally made of plastic or silicone. The products themselves range from $35 to $85, and customers will pay a small rental fee for the packaging—$2 per product, and $3 for the box to ship them back in. This isn’t a deposit, so you won’t get that fee back, a decision they made deliberately because a deposit makes the return seem optional, Stahl says, “whereas we’ve maintained ownership of our valuable packaging. We’re renting it to you.”
When the product is used up, customers swap in the provided return label, which sits in a window on the shipping box, and send the box and empties back. The box can fit in UPS drop boxes, so consumers don’t even have to find a UPS store. While they won’t get the rental fee back, they will get “planet points,” an Ace of Air rewards system that lets consumers convert those points to dollar donations for three charities the company supports: Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on ocean policy; Peconic Land Trust, which conserves natural land on Long Island; and 5 Gyres, a nonprofit aiming to reduce plastic pollution.
Circularity is becoming more popular with big brands: Dove recently launched a stainless steel refillable case for its deodorant, Loop is making food packaging circular for all its different brands. But when an established company tries to make a change like that, it can be difficult to mesh it with their already-existing production and retail structures. Ace of Air is starting out circular, and with that hard work out of the way, they hope to forge a new model for the beauty industry—one that puts the onus on the brand to deal with a product’s end-of-life packaging—and eventually help other brands make the circular switch.
If the Ace of Air box gets too damaged to reuse, it will get melted down—it’s made of 100% post-consumer recycled polypropylene, 30% of which is reclaimed ocean waste. If the product packaging also gets dinged or otherwise too run-down to reuse, the company will recycle the stainless steel, along with the rubber.
The world may not really need another beauty and wellness brand, Stahl says, but she and Nemcova started Ace of Air to be a catalyst for change when it comes to beauty packaging. “The beauty industry produces 120 billion units of packaging, which we don’t actually need,” Nemcova says. “We need the product.” Take into account the dismal fact that only an estimated 9% of plastic gets recycled (and all the ways our recycling systems are broken), and it’s easy to see how that waste piles up. “That’s why as a brand we’re taking full responsibility for our packaging.”