It may have an expiry date of February 2025, but the tiny packs in your purse, your travel pack and elsewhere in your home will likely be around, in some form or another, for at least 500 years.

Vintage lipsticks on display at the Makeup Museum in New York City. Casings made before the 1960s tended to be recyclable, made of materials such as aluminium and brass. (Wikimedia Commons) PREMIUM
Vintage lipsticks on display at the Makeup Museum in New York City. Casings made before the 1960s tended to be recyclable, made of materials such as aluminium and brass. (Wikimedia Commons)

While this is true of a lot of today’s packaging, with tiny packs, there is a special distinction. Because they are non-standard in size and shape, and usually multi-layered — containing different kinds of plastics and other elements such as aluminium and paper — they cannot easily be recycled.

Tiny packs “are not amenable to recycling at scale, with technology available at present in India. Their small size and light weight make them hard to collect, sort, aggregate, and transport,” notes a January report by the India Plastics Pact, an initiative set up in 2021 by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-India) to address the problem of plastics pollution.

The tiny components add up to a big concern, says Smita Birkar, who runs the non-profit 5Rcycle Foundation, which collects and sorts waste before selling it to recyclers.

Of the 25 tonnes of waste that the foundation processes every month, about 3 to 4 tonnes are made up by small-format and other multi-layered plastic packaging, Birkar says. “Because they are so difficult to deconstruct, and do not generate enough value in the supply chain, nobody wants to buy this waste. Waste-pickers don’t even want to take it at no cost. We give it away to recyclers for free, but very few are able to give these plastics a new lease on life.”

Mini packaging literally falls through the cracks. Typically, at a segregation unit or material recovery facility (MRF), waste undergoes several rounds of sorting. In the first, items made of glass, metal and plastic are separated into mounds. The plastic is then sorted further, based on type (flexible, rigid, compostable, multi-layered) and polymer composition.

Small-format packaging often doesn’t even make it to this step. “One of the first barriers is the glass,” says Alexis Hocken, a chemical engineering doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working with professor Bradley D Olsen’s research group. “Small-format plastics, typically defined as two inches in at least two dimensions, fall out during the glass-sorting step. The glass gets broken down into shards and slips through a screen. Smaller plastics also slip through and enter the glass stream, contaminating it.”

That’s one reason recyclers don’t want the tiny packs.

At MIT, Hocken is working on a sorting process — something she calls a cyclone sorter — that would keep even the smallest plastic packs inside the recycling chain.

The cyclone sorter would use the difference in densities to let materials such as glass fall out of the bottom, in early-stage recycling, and lighter materials exit through a side outlet.

There is no easier way, because small-format plastics come in a lot of different shapes, Hocken says. There are mascara tubes, lip-balm containers, tiny toothpastes, tiny deodorants, shampoo sachets. They are made up of a range of different kinds of plastics, so they can’t all be treated the same way either. “We need a solution that supports as many shapes as possible, and all the categories of plastic and the cyclone sorter seems to be able to do that,” she says.

A 2-ft-tall prototype has so far been testing plastic flakes and glass granules, and has achieved a separation efficiency rate of more than 90%, she adds. (While Hocken has not published on this yet, she did present the technology at the Packaging Recycling Summit held in November in Atlanta.)

In the next phase of testing, samples of packaging provided by consumer goods companies such as Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, Estée Lauder and L’Oreal will be tested. The aim is to then deploy the sorter at MRFs within the US, for a start.

Meanwhile, here at home, the India Plastic Pact is encouraging businesses, particularly in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry, to limit the use of tiny packs.

Amid the pandemic, hotel chains around the world moved away from the tiny bars of soap and bottles of shampoo to dispensers that were either automated or could be kept sanitised and refilled. This has helped.

Legislation is stepping in to assist as well. California and New York, for instance, are both rolling out bans on single-use plastic toiletries at hospitality establishments, prompting more hotel chains to take a fresh look at their toiletry supplies.

In the retail sector, refillable packs are emerging as possible alternatives. In India, beauty and skincare brands such as Asa, Conscious Chemist and Bare Necessities offer refillable units of lipstick, liquid soap, moisturiser and shampoo, among other products. Refills can be bought online and are designed to make the transfer to the original pack seamless.

It will be challenging to do away with small-format packs since these serve specific purposes: affordability, limited shelf life and sampling, Hocken says. “While we’re devising better recycling solutions, refillable could be an alternative.”


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