Are Your Plastic Shampoo Bottles Really Ocean-bound?
“If I use a recycled shampoo bottle or a plastic-free alternative, that’s one less bottle in the ocean—right?”
We’ve all been guilty of thinking this at one point in our lives, and it’s not hard to see why. Especially for us salon-product folks, we burn through shampoo and conditioner like crazy, and those bottles are heart-breakingly bulky to throw in the trash.
Ocean plastic is pretty prevalent in the public eye lately (and for good reason), but with that comes the greenwashing tactics of companies looking to capitalize on those growing concerns. So how can you tell if a company’s “plastic-free” promises actually mean something when it comes to haircare?
Here’s the hard truth: plastic shampoo bottles still suck, but when it comes to ocean plastic, the movement is pretty surface level.
Where Shampoo Bottles Go To Die
So what happens to those shampoo bottles that get tossed every day? Most shampoo bottles aren’t going directly into the ocean: instead, about 550 million shampoo bottles go to landfills every year. Here, they’ll slowly degrade over hundreds of years, often releasing greenhouse gasses like methane and ethylene in the process.
Five hundred and fifty....MILLION.
Sure, the intact bottles are bulky and annoyingly hard to break down over time, but that’s not the main problem. The problem is what happens as these bottles break down. As they break down into pieces, these tiny pieces (which we know more readily as “microplastics”) more easily creep into the soil and groundwater, where they migrate into practically any ecosystem they can touch. That means any local waterways, and eventually, the ocean itself.
Shampoo bottles and ocean plastic: a complicated connection
It’s still gross in the landfill, but clearly, plastic waste is still eventually reaching our ocean in chunks. Those floating garbage patches (which are really more like garbage “soup” than actual physical islands) are a testament to that. So what gives?
Are there shampoo bottles currently floating out in the ocean?
Sure: researchers have found them among other polyethylene sources (like detergent bottles and outdoor furniture). Companies use plastic in practically everything these days, but a study from the University of Cádiz in Spain found that four common items make up 44% of all trash found in the ocean:
- plastic bags
- plastic food containers
That’s a pretty big deal when you consider that 80% of ocean trash consists of plastics like these (along with fishing gear, synthetic ropes, plastic caps, glass bottles, and beverage cans).
So how do these bottles get there?
Generally, intact bottles only reach the ocean when they’re handled incorrectly. (Unfortunately, this probably isn’t as rare as we’d hope it would be.) If the bottles aren’t properly transported or sequestered in landfills, they fall away and eventually become runoff in local rivers that reach the ocean.
Other times, uncontrollable events like natural disasters can sweep massive amounts of waste—including plastic bottles—out to sea in the blink of an eye.
For the most part, shampoo bottles aren’t getting chucked whole into the ocean: but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a problem.
Most shampoo bottles are landfill-bound, not ocean-bound, so be wary of marketing campaigns that automatically tie recycled plastic or plastic-free alternatives as “ocean-friendly”.
You still need to consider all the plastic around the bottle too, including the plastic film used for palletized goods (cling film literally lasts a millennia before it degrades!)
Our plastic problem goes way beyond what we throw out: it goes back to the amount of virgin plastic we create, the inefficiency of recycling the plastic we already have, and the “on-demand” consumeristic mindset that makes this type of throwaway plastic in such high demand.
Going plastic-free in your haircare routine (like when you use your dip bars!) is still a great option for those who want to give back to their environment.
But be wary of any campaign that tries to make it seem like the one-stop solution to protecting our ocean from plastic.
If we don’t go deeper, then it’s going to be too easy to hide our plastic problem below the surface (both literally and figuratively).
References & deeper dives: