2023 Update on Compostables: Still Not There Yet

2023 Update on Compostables: Still Not There Yet

As the founder of Activist Skincare, it's my job to stay on top of two things: 1) the latest promising active ingredients that meet our criteria of effectiveness, gentleness, and ethical sourcing; and 2) green packaging innovations that can help us become an even more sustainable skincare company.

That's why earlier this year, I did a multi-month test of a new compostable pouch option created by a sustainable packaging company based here in the US. They sent me a couple dozen of their latest innovation: a flat pouch that is made from compostable paper on the outside and lined with a thin sheet of aluminum on the inside. This particular combination of materials has been certified compostable.

When the pouches arrived, they had a really nice organic feel on the outside from the matte-finish paper, which I fell in love with immediately. It was refined, understated, and had great potential to be made into something gorgeous — everything an eco-luxe sustainable skincare brand wants to be.

The packaging company representative — who I could tell was just as, if not more, passionate as me about protecting our planet — advised me to test the pouches with both our water-based and oil-based products, so we tried them with our serums and cleansers to start. Our assignment was to use our high-precision lab scale to take precise weight measurements on day one, day seven and once a week ongoing to see if the weight of the pouches stayed the same. These measurements, if steady over time, would indicate that the pouches were successfully preventing leaks and evaporation — but if the weights went down, it would indicate that there was a problem.

I was over-the-moon excited about the potential of these pouches. Despite the super-high price tag (approximately fives times per pouch compared to our current pouches, plus additional setup fees adding up to multiple thousands of dollars), I was determined to make the financials work if the pouches themselves worked.

And if they passed the weekly weight test, the next step would be to test the pouches in extreme conditions, including dry heat that they might encounter in a hot delivery van or warehouse.

Unfortunately, we never made it to that step. When day seven arrived and we put the pouches on the scale, a fraction of a gram was missing from the weight of the pouches containing our serums. It was such a small amount that I was not discouraged. We could just adjust our formulas a little bit to account for a small amount of evaporation, I told myself.

Another week passed and the fraction of a gram had turned into more than one gram. Still no big deal, I told myself. This was a miniscule percentage and it's just water.

But then the third and fourth weeks passed, and the amount of evaporation translated into into multiple percentage points of the total product, with no sign of slowing down as we passed the one-month and then the two-month marks. It became clear after we got all of our numbers into Excel and ran some formulas to project future weights that this evaporation was going to cause serious issues for our products. We projected double-digit losses of product after just a few months, which doesn't cut it when a newly-filled pouch may sit in our studio for a few weeks to a few months before shipping to a customer or retailer, and then another few weeks to a few months before being used by a customer.

There was no way to tell (without hiring a lab) if the evaporation was limited to just the water in the formula or if some of the other ingredients were also affected. Not only might it sacrifice effectiveness of the products, this evaporation was sure to impact the texture and experience of using the products, too.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop here; the compostable refill pouches seemed to be a fail for our oil-based products too. It seemed as though the pouches containing Botanical Cleansing Oil were taking on a tiny bit of weight, as if they were pulling humidity out of the air and holding it in the paper layer. This could potentially lead to mold growing on or inside the pouches, although we're not entirely sure at this stage.

The bottom line, disappointing as it may be, is that our testing has confirmed that our current refill pouches are the best combination of reliability and sustainability that the packaging industry has to offer at this point in time.

However, I don't believe this is the final answer. I'm in contact with multiple sustainable packaging companies, and I'll keep my eyes peeled and my ear to the ground so that I can be one of the first to enthusiastically test the next iteration of compostables when they are available. You can count on it.

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