How to Sustainably Discard Old & Empty Cosmetics: Everything You Need to Know

How to Sustainably Discard Old & Empty Cosmetics

You’ve just reached the bottom of the pan of your most used eyeshadow palette and you’re thinking… now what? When it comes to discarding our old and empty cosmetics, it can be difficult to know what exactly to do with them. Just tossing cosmetics in the trash is essentially a waste of resources that only contributes to landfills and pollution. In many cases, the packaging can be recycled or sometimes even composted. Zero Waste Europe reported that every year 120 billion units of packaging are produced by the global cosmetics industry. That’s a lot of packaging that at some point needs to be discarded!

It’s not only packaging waste that is a big problem. Chemicals in cosmetics can contaminate our waterways if not disposed of properly, ultimately endangering people and wildlife. So let’s take a deeper look at what you should do to correctly (and sustainably) get rid of your empty or unused products!

This post may contain affiliate links. It was written by Marissa from Rewild + Grow.

Table of Contents:

The Five Rs of Sustainability ♻️

Following the five Rs of sustainability can help us navigate solutions to our own waste, with the first step focusing on reducing our consumption altogether:

  • Reduce: Rethink your purchases and focus on quality over quantity. Can you use something less often, or refuse to use it altogether?
  • Reuse: Some packaging can be refilled, repurposed, or regifted.
  • Repair: If something is broken it could be repaired. For example, say your favorite lipstick broke in half, try melting it to reconstruct it.
  • Rot: Some packaging like paperboard and cardboard can be composted, which allows organic waste to decompose back into the earth. Both Meow Meow Tweet and Elate Beauty are great examples of companies that offer compostable packaging.
  • Recycle: When you’ve tried everything else it’s time for the final R. Sort and clean what is recyclable.

Creative Ways to Reuse Empty Containers

It’s important to know that simply tossing our empties into the recycling bin doesn’t mean they will be recycled. Consider reusing the packaging for something else first:

  • Empties can be used for a myriad of storage ideas. Think dried herbs and spices, or bulk goods. In the home save them for storing small items like paper clips, sewing supplies, or bobby pins (lipstick containers are good for this one).
  • Empty jars can also be used for DIYs like homemade candles and cosmetics or even more out of the box, use clear glass jars to create a plant propagation station.
  • Save small containers for travel. (sample-sized containers are great for on-the-go!)
  • Turn beautiful perfume bottles into vases for cut flowers.

The ideas are endless! Here are ten more ways to repurpose old cosmetic containers.

Regift or Donate Unused Products

A product might not have worked out for you, but it might work out better for someone else. Regift your unwanted cosmetics to family, friends, or co-workers – I am sure they won’t mind the freebies 😉 Gently used or unused cosmetics can be donated to local shelters. Women’s shelters and girls’ programs are always looking for self-care products. Each organization will have its own guidelines on what they will accept or what they are currently in need of. Two nation-wide programs worth checking out:

Project Beauty Share: An organization that donates personal hygiene, beauty products, and makeup to women and families who are overcoming hardships.

Dress for Success: This program aims to help women achieve economic independence by providing them with support, clothing, and developmental tools.

Elate Beauty Mascara
Elate Mascara uses bamboo packaging (Photo credit: Rewild + Grow)

Old mascara wands can be gifted to Wands for Wildlife. Their program repurposes the applicators to help care for wild animals by removing fly eggs and larvae from their fur and feathers. They are the perfect tool for the job because the bristles are so close together. The wands are also reused through the Wand Art program, a creative initiative to engage youth and artists with the mission to help the wild ones.

How to Properly Discard Your Empties

Step 1: Learn

Check with your local waste management department to learn your particular guidelines.

Step 2: Examine

If the empty cosmetic is not reusable, examine and dissect the packaging to see what components are compostable, recyclable, or what needs to go in the trash. Look for recycling codes like the Mobius loop, an internationally recognized symbol that designates recyclable materials.

Mobius loop recycling symbol
Mobius loop recycling symbol

Step 3: Clean

If you find yourself with an expired cosmetic that still contains product, the product must be removed with a paper towel and sealed in a plastic bag to be put in the trash. This ensures chemicals aren’t seeping into the trash which is harmful to the land and air. Do not rinse the product in the sink or flush it down the toilet because the chemicals can enter our waterways. This is not an ideal situation which is why it’s important to be conscious of expiration dates.

For products where the expiry is not an issue, use a spatty (mini spatula) to get every last drop! Then give it a good rinse to get all of the residual product out. Cleaning is an important step to avoid remnants of formulas from contaminating waste streams.

Spatty Cosmetic Spatula
Spattys are helpful for getting every last drop!

Different communities accept different materials. It has to do with the community’s material recovery system and the agreement that center has with recycling collection programs. Generally, once your recyclables get picked up from the curb, they’re sorted and then sold to companies that do the actual recycling. The companies that buy our recyclables won’t accept dirty or contaminated materials. Recycled content needs to be at least 95% uncontaminated, hence why it is important to thoroughly clean empties before binning them.

Paper & Cardboard 📜

Paper and cardboard can be recycled, and in many cases, these items can even be composted as long as they are not wax-coated or laminated with another material.

Plastic Containers 🥤

According to The World Economic Forum, a mere 14% of plastic packaging worldwide is collected for recycling.

When you can’t avoid buying plastic, try choosing single-material packaging that is made of clear or white plastic. Facilities use optical sorting systems that use the reflection of light to identify materials. Black plastic is recyclable, but waste sorting systems can’t recognize black pigments. Much of it remains in the stream of unsorted material and either ends up in the landfill or incineration.

The Mobius loop with a number 1-7 provides a Plastic Resin Code that identifies the type of plastic used to make the item.

#1 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) ♳
#2 High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) ♴
#3 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) ♵
#4 Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) ♶
#5 Polypropylene (PP) ♷
#6 Polystyrene (PS) ♸
#7 Catch-all category (Other) ♹

Any packaging with a #1 or #2 is recyclable. These are the most common numbers you will encounter. #3 PVC material on the other hand is difficult to recycle because of its high levels of hazardous additives. Anything numbered 4-6 is usually unrecyclable, but it depends on your community’s rules. #7 items mean it’s made up of a mixture of plastics or a different plastic than listed. This number usually cannot be recycled but in some cases, it can.

Related podcast episode: “Five Easy Ways to Go Plastic-Free for Good

Glass Containers 🔎

Clear, brown, and green glass are preferred at recycling facilities because they are the most desired colors. Some recycling facilities require glass to be separated between clear and colored before going curbside. Single-stream systems allow glass to be mixed into one bin and gets sorted by color later. It’s best to check what your community requires. Glass can be recycled indefinitely and needs to maintain its original color to retain its value.

Bamboo Containers 🎍

Bamboo is an up-and-coming sustainable material that many green beauty brands are using to house their cosmetics. Most communities accept this material in their recycling facilities. In many cases, bamboo can even be composted. For instance, Elate offers bamboo palettes that are refillable but can go straight into the compost when you no longer need them!

Related post: “40+ Natural Brands with Zero Waste or Sustainable Packaging

Aerosol Cans 💨

Most aerosols (like hair, deodorant, or sunscreen spray) are made of steel and/or aluminum and are recyclable without the caps. It does vary by community, so check with local rulers to see if aerosols are accepted. An important note about aerosol cans: the cans must be completely empty (you’ll hear silence when pressing down the nozzle). Otherwise, they are considered household hazardous waste (HHW) and need to be dropped off at your local HHW facility.

Small Items 🚫

Items under 6 oz. or small format containers don’t flow well through curbside recycling. They’ll get screened out or caught in the disposal stream. Most facilities are automated with optical and physical sorter machines that can easily miss small items.

How to Sustainably Discard Old & Empty Cosmetics

Multi-Layered or Mult-Material Products 🧲

This means that different types of plastic or a combination with metals are used to make different components of the packaging. Most of the time these items are unrecyclable through municipal recycling programs. Keep in mind, with a little creativity some of these items can be reused or upcycled:

  • Multi-material items are commonly found in containers like flexible pouches and squeezable tubes, which usually cannot be recycled.
  • Magnets cannot be recycled. They are made with “rare earth” elements and are processed with harsh carcinogenic toxins.
  • Mirrors are made by applying a non-recyclable reflective coating to the back of glass which makes it nearly impossible to recycle.
  • Elastic bands are made of rubber and latex which is difficult to recycle. However, this item can definitely be reused!
  • Pumps and droppers cannot be recycled. They are often made of different materials and can contain unnoticeable metal springs.
  • Applicators like mascara and lip gloss wands are comprised of many small parts like nylon bristles, foam tips, and various plastics making them hard to recycle.
  • You’ll know when it’s time to part ways with your makeup brushes when they start shedding bristles or emit an unpleasant odor. Unfortunately, makeup brushes are typically unrecyclable.
  • Caps and screw tops, on the other hand, are usually recyclable even if they are made of a different material than the bottle or jar itself. It is important to remember to put the cap back on the product before binning it (see the point about small items).
  • Remove any product labels but go ahead and recycle the packaging even if you’re struggling to get the label completely off.

Essential Oils 🌱

Essential oils don’t go rancid, but most essential oils do deteriorate with age and should be used up prior to that time or disposed of correctly. It’s generally okay to occasionally freshen a drain by adding 2-3 drops of oil to eliminate bad odors but dumping large quantities down the drain is hazardous. The substances could come into contact with water supplies, vegetation, and animals.

It’s easy to forget that essential oils are highly concentrated flammable substances that should be treated like other hazardous materials such as paint thinner, pharmaceuticals, and gasoline. Your retailer or supplier should be able to provide a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each essential oil that has information on safety, storage, usage, and disposal. Your community has guidelines in place for the proper disposal of hazardous fluid ingredients.

Nail Polish 💅

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers nail polish to be household hazardous waste (HHW) and cannot be thrown away or recycled. Just like essential oils, proper disposal would need to be checked with your waste management department.

Razor Blades 🪒

Razor blades can be collected and saved in a blade safe container. Once full, drop them off at your recycling center and they will gladly take your scrap metal. TerraCycle will also take your razor blades. They have partnered with Gillette and will accept all blades even from other brands. Also, Albatross accepts all brands of blades and will recycle them for you via their Blade Take Back Program!

Safety Razor Shaving

Related post: “Zero Waste Shaving Guide: How to Use a Safety Razor

Makeup Wipes 💋

Makeup wipes are usually made of synthetic fibers that prevent them from being compostable or recyclable and therefore belong in the trash. Biodegradable makeup wipes do exist, but reusable organic cotton or bamboo pads are the way to go!

Give Back & Refill Programs

Good News! 🥳 There is a solution for recycling those hard-to-recycle items.

TerraCycle, an innovative global recycling company, collects and repurposes almost any kind of waste product for free. Even items like magnets, mirrors, and pump tops. Sort your empties to determine which items can be recycled at home and which items are TerraCycle bound.

Recently, they partnered with Garnier to create a recycling program specifically for beauty products in the USA, no matter what brand. You can recycle from home by simply joining their program online and downloading a free shipping label.

TerraCycle at Beauty Heroes
Photo credit: Beauty Heroes

Retailers like Credo, Beauty Heroes, Follain, and The Detox Market have partnered with TerraCycle to create drop off locations for your empties. These recycling programs are becoming increasingly popular even among large mainstream cosmetic retailers like Lush, Nordstrom, and Mac. Most even come with customer reward programs as an added incentive.

Plaine Products is a perfect example of a company with a refill program that creates a waste-free closed-loop system. You keep the pumps, send back your empty bottles, and they will send you a refill.

Related post: “Refill, Reuse, Rejoice with Plaine Products Eco-Friendly Body Care

Plaine Products Zero Waste Body Wash
Plaine Products Refillable Body Care – they now use white pumps instead of black!

When in Doubt, Throw it Out! 🗑

Have you heard of ‘wish-cycling,’ where you throw something in the recycling bin hoping that it will be recycled? While the intention might be good, the reality is that non-recyclable items could potentially clog up the entire system and create greater problems. As stated previously, municipal recycling facilities often sell the materials they collect and contaminated bales of recycled content become harder to sell because their value decreases.

Recycling our cosmetics might seem like a trivial task that often gets overshadowed by kitchen recycling but it’s just as important! If you find yourself without a recycling option check with third-party programs like TerraCycle that offer hard-to-recycle solutions. Once you truly analyze the recyclability of your cosmetics it might make you think twice about the products you’re choosing. Supporting green beauty companies poses the least amount of risk as these companies typically offer more environmentally-friendly options when it comes to packaging and formulas. These products are not just better for the environment but also for you!

Get started with natural beauty brands that offer sustainable packaging here:

40+ Natural Brands with Zero Waste or Sustainable Packaging


Waste Management, TerraCycle, World Economic Forum, Zero Waste Europe, Environmental Working Group, Green Peace, Keep America Beautiful, Credo, Beauty Heroes, The Detox Market, Nordstrom, Lush, Plaine Products, Follain, Elate Beauty, Meow Meow Tweet, Mac, InStyler, Project Beauty Share, Dress for Success, Wands for Wildlife



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Written by: Marissa Biese

Marissa is a photographer, writer, and gardener from Wisconsin. Her passion for regenerative living founded Rewild + Grow, a space for learning how to reconnect and live in harmony with our beautiful natural world.

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