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26 Jan 2020

How can we tackle our bathroom plastics recycling problem?

Consumers can help reduce plastic waste, but companies must also do more

Our daily bathing routines contribute tonnes of packaging materials to landfill each year - from shampoo bottles to toothpaste tubes. So how can we recycle more of our toiletries, or even cut out plastic entirely?

We bought a basket of common toiletries to find out whether the packaging could be recycled, and how clearly this information was being provided - if at all.

12 out of the 20 products we looked at fell short, failing to provide clear recycling labelling.

We also looked at the type and volume of packaging, to see how difficult it would be to recycle at home.

Our bathroom plastics investigation

Some 60% of the products in the toiletries basket we bought has no recycling information on the label, despite most of them being partially or wholly recyclable.

We found that Head & Shoulders classic clean shampoo (500ml, pictured above), L'Oreal Elvive Colour Protect conditioner (400ml) and Listerine Total Care mouthwash (500ml) - among nine others in our basket - had no clear labelling on recycling, despite being made of recyclable materials.

Many brands fell short of the standards Which? expects. But examples of products where we found good practice include Carex's Complete Original handwash (250ml, pictured above), which displays clear labelling about how to recycle the bottle, and encourages people to do so. Radox Feel Refreshed shower gel (250ml) gives similarly clear instructions.

All plastic packaging has a resin identification code - a number from one to seven inside a triangle - which indicates the type of plastic it's made of. From this, you may be able to work out whether that material is recyclable in your area, based on your local advice.

However, many people aren't aware of the meaning of these symbols, and they don't necessarily indicate recyclability, which can be confusing. For example, the Neutrogena hand cream (50ml, pictured above) is not easily recyclable.

Labelling not helping you out? Check our guide on how to recycle in the UK

What should companies do?

It's clear improvement is needed with recycling labels on toiletries and cosmetics.

Helen Bird, from waste reduction charity WRAP, says, 'Labelling should be clear and consistent across all packaging. It's particularly needed in bathroom products as confusion around these means many people are getting things wrong.'

As a rule of thumb, if it's a bottle, it can go in your recycling. For pots and tubes, check locally at recyclenow.com - you can use the 'Recycling Locator' to search by postcode or packaging type.

The onus is on companies to change how they communicate to customers about recycling their products, as well as changing how they approach the production of plastic packaging.

How does the kitchen compare to the bathroom? Find out what supermarkets are doing about plastic.

The volume of plastic we use is such that even improved practice with recycling won't save the day. Companies must do more to redesign packaging and create less waste overall.

Last week, Colgate announced the launch of a new toothpaste that comes in a recyclable tube, a first in the industry for a previously non-recyclable product.

In fact, toothpaste tubes are one of the most common contaminants of recycling in UK households.

Innovations such as this are promising, but there's still a long way to go, and for now there are things we can do as consumers to reduce our plastic footprint.

Nine plastic-free toiletries swaps you can make

Plastic-free toiletries are becoming more common - cropping up in Boots and major supermarkets.

Below, we've found some plastic-free swaps for common bathroom products you can try at home.

1. Soap

Good, old-fashioned soap bars are making a comeback as a plastic-free alternative to shower gel and liquid hand soap. If you're having flashbacks to the harsh, spartan soap of yesteryear, you might be pleasantly surprised by how moisturising some of toda's soap bars can feel.

They're usually very cheap, so are likely to be an economical choice, too. Dove Beauty Cream Bar (100g, 80p) is available from retailers such as Boots.

2. Solid shampoo/conditioner bars

Shampoo and conditioner bars are becoming more widely available. Many shampoo bars are sulphate-free, which can make them less harsh on skin than many popular bottled haircare products.

Some brands claim the bars last a lot longer than a standard-size bottle - Lush claims its shampoo bars can do 80-100 washes, although we haven't tested this.

Another example is the Faith In Nature Lavender & Geranium Shampoo Bar (85g, £5.79), which is available from retailers such as Boots.

3. Face wipe alternatives

Wipes cause blockages in wastewater systems and can find their way into oceans where, like other types of plastics, they can cause problems for the marine environment.

Even 'biodegradable' wipes aren't ideal for the environment - they still come in plastic packaging and some break down into microplastics, or get stuck in the sewerage system before breaking down.

A washable flannel and some soap is a good alternative, proving the old methods are sometimes the best.

4. Safety razors

Disposable razors often come in plastic-heavy packaging, and are themselves made of mixed plastics that are difficult or impossible to recycle.

Reusable razors made from chrome or stainless steel are becoming a popular alternative.

While they're pricey, they should last much longer than a plastic one.

5. Bamboo toothbrushes

Our daily dental routines contribute alarming amounts to landfill. If we assume that people change their toothbrush roughly every three months, that means we're throwing away about 200 million plastic toothbrushes each year in the UK.

One alternative is a bamboo toothbrush, which has a compostable handle.

Be aware, though, that the bristles are still likely to be made of plastic and need to be removed before composting. One commonly available bamboo toothbrush is the Humble Brush (£4).

6. Toothpaste and mouthwash tablets

Toothpaste tubes are the thorn in the side of avid recyclers. They're one of the least recyclable household products - and they're the second-most common contaminant in household recycling collections.

Options to try if you want to cut down on tubes include toothpaste pellets and toothpaste in glass jars that you scoop out with a spatula.

However, it's worth noting that most plastic-free toothpaste is also fluoride-free, and both the NHS and British Dental Association recommend using fluoride in your dental care routine.

An exception that does have fluoride are Denttabs tablets (£3.75).

7. Menstrual cups

Tampons and sanitary pads often come with a lot of packaging, in addition to containing plastic. The products themselves take an estimated 500 years to break down in landfill.

Plastic-free menstrual products have been gaining traction over the years, with menstrual cups now widely available.

Options such as period-proof underwear and reusable tampon applicators are also becoming more common. Although some might take getting used to and are costly up front, they are a good money-saving choice in the long run.

8. Plastic-free deodorant

Both roll-on and aerosol deodorant containers can be recycled in many local authority areas in the UK, but plastic-free alternatives are also available. Many plastic-free deodorants, which usually come in a cardboard tube or glass pot, are also billed as 'natural'.

This means they don't contain the same chemicals as traditional deodorant (and therefore their effectiveness may vary). But they tend to be a lot more expensive than regular deodorants, too, with many costing around £10 or more.

Holland & Barrett sells a range of plastic-free deodorants, including Salt of the Earth Plastic Free Deodorant Crystal (75g, £3.74).

9. Recyclable/plastic-free toilet paper

Some companies - such as Who Gives a Crap and Ecoleaf - use paper or compostable packaging for toilet rolls. The toilet paper itself is made from recycled materials. You can make bulk orders online, and some brands are widely available in supermarkets.

Video: how to cut down on household plastic