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Rethinking #ZeroWaste and Sheet Masks

When I scroll through my Instagram feed, there’s a noticeable dichotomy. On the one hand, the #shelfie trend is alive and well. Meanwhile, hashtags like #zerowaste and #plasticfree are proliferating. This movement of eco warriors is vocal about the beauty industry's waste problem. Our reusable cosmetic pads are one of the bestselling products in our shop, and it’s no surprise. Consumers in 2021 are actively trying to live more sustainably, and this is a good thing! So what’s the problem?

The problem with #zerowaste

Firstly, it’s impossible to exist and not produce waste. Full stop.

Secondly, I see a lot of eco-shaming from the zero-waste movement. I don’t think anyone should be made to feel guilty for buying a product wrapped in or made of plastic. Our efforts to be more sustainable shouldn’t be motivated by guilt. If the goal is to empower people to change their habits, shaming isn’t the way to achieve that. Does fat shaming or addiction shaming lead to anything positive? No. So enough with the eco-shaming.

Thirdly, constantly weighing the environmental impact of every single product you buy is futile. Most people don't understand enough about recycling and waste treatment to make informed decisions, nor will they put in the effort to calculate every product’s carbon footprint. This would be so ridiculously time consuming. Case in point: On a recent trip to the supermarket my husband was given the simple task of grabbing some olives. He always opts for bio when possible, but this time the choice wasn’t so obvious:

His thought process for this supposed simple purchase: should I buy the bio olives in the plastic packaging or the non-bio ones in the glass jar? Plastic packaging doesn’t break so you can pack the olives efficiently. They’re much lighter than glass so transporting them will use less fossils fuels. But glass can be recycled and made into new glass. Plastic, on the other hand, can be burned and turned into energy (at least in Switzerland). The process of recycling glass takes a ton of energy, its melting point is 1500-1700 degrees…

Imagine if we had to constantly consider all the complexities that go into manufacturing, delivering, and the disposal process of every consumer product? It’s overwhelming to the point of paralyzing. And most people (myself included) are not even educated on this topic enough to think of half the things my husband did in those 5 minutes. We went with the bio olives in the plastic packaging by the way. #noregrets

Zero-waste circles also make a lot of assumptions about what is and isn’t “green”, and these assumptions aren’t necessarily accurate. For example, most people assume it’s more eco-friendly to buy local. This, however, isn’t always the case and the reasons are complex. The sentiment behind the zero-waste movement is noble, but it puts a lot of pressure on consumers to make the most eco-friendly decision when they don’t even have all the information to do so.

Accessibility is also an issue that often gets ignored. Not everyone is able to buy rice in bulk nor can everyone travel to a different part of town (or in my case, an entirely different city) just to buy something that doesn’t come in plastic. If I were to travel all the way to Zürich to fill my glass jar with lentils, the carbon footprint of my getting there and home again (even when taking the train) would negate my whole attempt at trying to be more sustainable. When I lived in Korea it was sometimes impossible to avoid excessive plastic packaging, as you can see in the picture below:

(Yes, inside that plastic packaging is a plastic bottle of ketchup 🤯 ). This is a very long, convoluted way of saying this whole movement is just so unrealistic. If you’re learning and improving, even in baby steps, that – not guilt – should be your motivation to keep it up.

A more reasonable hashtag

We personally prefer the hashtag #lesswaste. Yes, we use plastic in our daily lives and will continue to do so because for now, that’s realistic. At the end of the day, we are buy less stuff, reuse more stuff and vote for change people. Putting the blame on individuals is just wrong and takes attention away from where it should be - industry. We should vote for people who will create legislation that forces industries to improve their practices. Those are truly the best ways to lower our carbon footprint.

And instead of stressing ourselves out trying to not produce any waste, maybe we should be funding non-profit organizations like The Ocean Clean-Up. They have a product called Interceptor, which is a machine powered by solar energy that literally intercepts trash in rivers, so it doesn’t end up in the ocean. Why is this important? Rivers are responsible for roughly 80% of the ocean’s plastic pollution. This organization also recovers plastic from the ocean and turns it into sunglasses (we own a pair, they’re pretty nice 😎 ).

Apeel is a company doing super innovative things. They’ve created a plant-based film that protects produce, making it last far longer than if it had no packaging at all. Food packaging is often unfairly demonized in zero-waste/plastic-free circles. But packaging keeps the contents edible for longer, which reduces the amount of overall food waste. In most cases, more energy, water, and other resources go into growing the produce than go into the manufacturing of the packaging. Therefore, having the packaging outweighs the throwing out of produce. Of course, there are situations where manufacturers go overboard with their packaging, but I’m sure you’d much rather have your piece of cheese wrapped in film than have it be exposed and contaminated at the supermarket. Packaging is good, and the more eco-friendly we can make it, the better.

Our sheet mask dilemma

Looking around my space to see what practical “eco improvements” I can make, I can’t help but notice my shop’s sheet mask inventory. Sheet masks are getting a lot of heat for their negative impact on the environment, and rightly so. This is a product you will open and use for 15-20 minutes, one time. Then it goes in the garbage and you move on to the next step in your routine. I may not be a #zerowaste person, but even I can admit the waste these sheet masks create is a bit much.

The environmental cost:

The mask’s outside packaging is typically made of plastic or foil, and there’s usually a thin piece of plastic inside to keep the structure of the mask. Many masks contain plastic polymers, which take about 1000 years to degrade (that’s being optimistic), and when broken down, leave behind microplastics. Let me say it again for the people in the back: you use this product once for 15 minutes.

The financial cost:

Many argue sheet masks are also a waste of money. Using a sheet mask once in a rare while when you’re having a “spa day” isn’t a big deal (in my opinion), but I’ve seen a lot of skinfluencers recommend using a sheet mask several times a week. There’s nothing in a sheet mask that makes it a necessary skincare step, it’s literally a blast of essence; an expensive one at that. Let’s break down the calculations:

Let’s say you mask 2x per week at 5chf per mask. That’s 10chf per week or 40chf per month! You can get a bottle of essence for less than 40chf and it lasts far longer than that.

Offering sheet masks from brands that are trying to make them more environmentally friendly (such as Sioris and COSRX) makes me feel better about it, but only to an extent. Even if the mask itself degrades quickly and the packaging can be recycled, it’s still an unnecessary product in my opinion. No one’s skin needs a sheet mask. Admit it, we use them because they’re fun.

So does this mean Sinless Skincare will stop selling them? Maybe. We’ve already started trimming down our collection and will only continue selling from brands that are dedicated to making this product more sustainable. But it’s going to take more research seeing as how the beauty industry is full of greenwashing (making products seem more eco-friendly than they are). A good example of this is the term biodegradable. Literally everything from an apple core to a plastic straw is biodegradable – but does it take 10 days or 10,000 years? You won’t find that part in the fine print.

Human ingenuity is saving the day (again)

Sheet mask sales have skyrocketed since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. With an estimated 6.8 billion sheet masks thrown out worldwide each day, it’s clear they aren’t going off the market any time soon. Just like the Ocean Clean-Up and Apeel, good humans are trying to find tangible, realistic solutions to the unique type of waste sheet masks present.

In a study published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, researchers claim that combining used, shredded sheet masks with recycled concrete can lead to stronger roads by “improving durability, ductility, and flexibility.” These researchers calculate that 3 million masks could pave up to 1 kilometer of road. Mining virgin materials from a quarry costs around $50 per ton, whereas using sheet masks with recycled concrete aggregate costs half of that and reduces overall construction costs. (source: https://inhabitat.com/used-face-masks-could-be-repurposed-for-making-roads/)

We’d love to know your thoughts on the zero-waste movement and/or sheet masks. Have you encountered any roadblocks on your journey to living more sustainably? Have you experienced eco-shaming? How do you feel about single-use beauty products? Let us know in the comments!

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