Behind The Green Curtain: Unveiling Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging With Brandon Frank

CBW 21 | Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging

In this episode, Amy talks to Brandon Frank, President of PPC Packaging. Brandon is one of the most influential thought leaders currently when it comes to sustainable packaging in the beauty and cosmetic market. He is a sought-after speaker, advisor, and advocate about what “sustainability” actually means, and in this conversation, he pulls the curtain back on some of the harsh truths about cosmetic packaging. Can a clean beauty brand actually use truly sustainable packaging? Does zero waste exist? And what can an emerging clean beauty brand due to be more mindful about the containers and packaging they use? Tune in for this eye-opening conversation, and become more educated about what’s really happening in the industry.

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Behind The Green Curtain: Unveiling Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging With Brandon Frank

I am super excited to embark on a conversation with Brandon Frank, who is the President of Pacific Packaging Components, PPC. We’re going to dive into an important and enlightening conversation about what sustainable packaging means. For those of you who have found me, I am the Founder of the Clean Beauty Product Launch Accelerator and an online aromatherapy certification program called Aromatherapy in Action.

Welcome, Brandon. I’m super excited to have you here and talk about sustainable packaging. I’d love you to start with a little brief introduction about yourself. It doesn’t have to be that brief. Everybody would be interested in how you got into this area and into being an expert in sustainable packaging. I’d love to have you share that.

Thank you so much. I am certainly passionate about sustainable packaging. It’s in my blood. My grandparents, several years ago, started a packaging business before I was born. My parents worked in the family business for many years now. When I was born, it was our family business. I grew up in the warehouse driving the forklift, when I was old enough. Before then, I was sorting through different things and learning about packaging. It was what we did.

Over time when I went to college, I got into sustainable packaging and recycling. I drove this little Toyota Tacoma, this red truck, around the college campus picking up all the recyclables from the dorm rooms. There, they were all sorted. There were plastics, glass, cardboard, and paper. I would organize them and no one ever put the stuff in the right boxes. I was always resorting and cleaning it. It was gross, but it was a job and I like driving that truck around, too.

For me, there was a pivotal moment in my senior year. I’d done it for about three years. I was like, “I want to go to the facility where all this stuff goes.” I would drop it off and then they would come to pick it up and go and so, I went. I was at the facility from the manager there that I learned that none of the material that I had been collecting and sorting from my time in college was getting recycled, or if any, a very small amount of it was. It was this moment of, growing up in packaging, knowing a fair amount about it, knowing that I was involved in it, and then realizing that the whole thing was broken. There was this veil of secrecy and a real gap in understanding of what was happening to this packaging at the end of life. That stuck with me.

When I came back to the family business and took over running the business, I was like, “I want to look forward for the next 50 years to how we can be a part of this solution.” I went back to school. I finished up my Master’s in Packaging Value Chain from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to help better understand how solutions could be created in this space. A lot of what I do is being honest and transparent with brands and consumers and giving talks, presentations, and shows like this with you, Amy, to help people realize what’s happening and how we can do things better going forward.

I love that story because, for so many of us, we chug along thinking we understand things, but until we ask the questions, suddenly, we can make an impactful difference. I would love for you to talk about defining what it means to be a sustainable package. I work with a lot of merging clean beauty founders.

One of the values that they tell me right from the beginning when we start working together is, “I want my packaging to be zero waste, sustainable, and all that.” I completely can relate to that ethos and that desire to want that to make that impact. What’s the reality of an emerging brand being able to do something like that? If you could break down the truth for us about what that would mean for an emerging brand coming forward into this space, that would be great.

First, I absolutely applaud the ethos, and the effort to be more sustainable. It’s incredibly important to move things forward, but here’s my wet blanket moment on this thing. There’s no such thing as sustainable packaging. If we look at what sustainable things are, it’s the things that we could do perpetually over time without it ever coming to a moment where it would have this huge detrimental impact.

In reality, every single piece of packaging that is manufactured and brought to the market, taken away like plastic credits, carbon credits, and additional things that are being done afterward has a negative impact on the planet because it’s taking energy to consume. There are raw materials. There’s the production. There are end-of-life considerations.

All in all, there’s going to be an impact there and it’s not a positive one. Realizing that part first, it’s not a silver bullet to where we’re going to choose packaging that’s going to be good for the planet. It’s like we’re going to choose packaging that’s going to do less damage to the environment. We’re going to do things a little bit better.

Over time, more and more brands are going to do things better and better to where we can come up with solutions that are not having the negative impact on the planet that they are now. That’s the reality of it. Accepting that one is probably one of the most important parts. Also, digging a little bit deeper into what that means and how the packaging industry, big oil, or even the government, to a certain point, has been misleading the public about what is getting recycled and what’s not, how the whole system works. When we understand that too, then it makes sense of how we think about packaging and then it impacts our purchasing decisions.

CBW 21 | Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging
Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging: We’re going to choose a packaging that’s going to do less damage to the environment. We’re going to do things a little bit better. And over time, more and more brands are going to do things better and better.

For brands, that means what packaging are you buying and why? For consumers, it’s when you’re shopping for products. Even if you want the product, what types of packaging formats would you not buy? When you buy that product, you’re not just buying the goop that’s inside of it. You’re buying the entire thing. That value of that packaging or the responsibility that comes with that is transferred from the brand or retailer you bought it from, and now it’s yours. What you do with that packaging is going to have an impact on the planet.

That was wonderful. That is very important for everyone to understand. Now, realizing that, what would be some tangible steps or actions that an emerging clean beauty brand can take? Considering that they don’t have a lot of money when they’re coming right out of the box and they want to be able to talk about this because they feel passionate about it and it’s something that they believe in.

Certainly, when I’m working with emerging founders, I say to them, “You need to understand your why. Let’s figure out your brand vision, your mission, and your values. What won’t you buy? What won’t you take? What do you stand for?” These are important right from the beginning for a clean beauty emerging founder to be clear about. Once they establish their values, what are some real actionable steps that they can take with packaging to be able to reflect that deeper purpose that they have?

The first one is to be honest with yourself and your customers about what is going to happen to that package. That means taking responsibility for educating yourself on what the waste-to-recycling stream looks like in the US if that’s where your products are being sold and what is likely going to happen if your customer is done with this product and they put it into the recycle bin. Whatever the truth is, be ready to communicate that.

CBW 21 | Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging
Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging: Be honest with yourself and be honest with your customers about what is actually going to happen to that package. And that means taking responsibility for educating yourself on what the current waste or recycling stream look like.

One of the biggest issues that the recycling industry has is this thing called wish cycling. This means that everyone calls all mono-material packaging items recyclable, and technically, everything could be recycled. There are processes or systems that would do it, but the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC created these green guides that say, “You should only be marketing packaging that 60% of households in America have access to a recycling stream consistently that will process that material.”

If we look at that definition, there’s only a handful of items that are getting recycled. Those are PET water bottles or things that are similar in size to that, HDPE milk jugs or bigger polyethylene plastic jugs, shampoo bottles, and aluminum cans and bottles. The recycle stream got good at capturing metals. Those tend to get sorted out relatively early on. Paper, corrugate, cardboard, unit cartons, and things like that can be easily processed. Glass is a difficult one for a lot of facilities to process. It is being captured more and more, at least in some areas. In other areas, it’s being collected less. That’s it.

In terms of materials, the other consideration is the size and shape. Anything that’s smaller than the size of a yogurt cup on all sides is most likely not going to get captured and recycled. There are about 120-plus billion units of beauty packaging that are made every year. Almost all of those end up going into landfills. When a brand says, “We have this item and it’s made from a mono-material, polypropylene plastic, PP #5 on the RIC scale. That’s the Resin Identification Code. That’s a little number that you see on plastic items. That item is never going to get recycled.

Following this all the way through, instead of telling the customer that this is mono-material and recyclable, you should say, “Do not try to recycle this in your curbside bin. You should throw it away.” We’ve partnered with a special recycling program. Pact is one of the best ones out there and they have relationships with retailers like Credo and Ulta or Sephora. I don’t remember which one, one of those where they have drop-off boxes in their stores and they’ve trained the employees to help consumers say, “These things will get recycled through our program and these things won’t.” That’s one example.

I have a quick pet peeve and I have to say this. For some reason, the packaging industry made a mono-material and recyclable the same thing. It did that to make it sound better. For a decade there, when a lot of brands were switching from Co-Ex or multi-layer tubes to mono-material tubes so that they could tell their customers that it was recyclable, even though we know that tubes are almost never recycled in the US. They always get transferred from the recycled facility to the landfill. That’s another example.

If we’re aware of what’s being captured, then we could communicate that better to our customers and prevent the incredibly wasteful and expensive process of what wish recycling does. The recycling facilities have to sort out all the stuff that they cannot recycle, they have to ship it over to a landfill, and the carbon emissions impact of that alone is tremendous.

Let’s say a small brand is not yet being sold at Credo or Ulta. They don’t have the ability to say to their customers, “Drop off your unit at one of these bins there.” What can they do? They can be honest with their customers and explain the process and they themselves get educated on the life cycle of their packaging. Is that all they can do? Is there something that they can do? Can they purchase a certain kind of plastic?

I hear a lot of entrepreneurs talk about it, they’ll say to me, “I want to use soy ink. I want to use a label that’s made out of corn plastic. I want to use a box that can be replanted in the earth,” or whatever. They have all these ideas that they’ve heard of. Out of all of that, what is realistic? What can they do?

It depends. One of the things about packaging is there are so many different formats and styles. Quantities play a big role in manufacturing packaging. There are budgets and a lot of different things. The first thing that I would advise is not to make unsustainable business decisions about your sustainable packaging goals. The amount of brands that have shuttered because of bad decisions early on, whether it was related to their packaging or their rush to market with something that maybe wasn’t as proven and they had to throw away waste, everything that they had produced.

Do not make unsustainable business decisions about your sustainable packaging goals. Share on X

Unfortunately, I could tell multiple stories about brands doing that and then coming to us and being, “What should I have done?” The first one is to recognize that a new business is fragile and to make decisions that are good for the business early on. Recognizing that in the future as the business grows, you’ll be able to have a greater impact on making better decisions on your packaging.

That being said, we can at least create a hierarchy of things to shoot for. We can look at what are some phase one options, as you scale up. When we’re thinking about the most sustainable packaging formats in the beauty industry to the least, this is my hierarchy. The top one is to try to reduce the amount of packaging material that is being used.

This is the highest one. Use or develop a refillable or replacement program. That would include a concentrate where you add water. It could be tablets that can be added to water. It can be powders. It could be little formats that are in an airless unit if you’re airless packaging and your formula needs airless. There are replacement cartridges where the customer can keep the outer of the airless unit and then the inner compartment can be switched out.

Part of the reason I like this solution is US consumers need to change the way that we think about our packaging. Instead of thinking about buying it, using it, and throwing it away, we need to think about buying it and reusing it over time. It takes a long time for that item to go back into the recycle bin or waste bin. That’s number one.

US consumers need to change the way that we think about our packaging. And instead of thinking about buying, using, and throwing it away, we need to think about buying it and reusing it over time. It takes a long time for that item to go back into the… Share on X

The second one is the use of packaging that is made from a natural substrate. Glass, aluminum, and paperboard are all things that are found in the environment. The impact of those pollutions is a lot lower as compared to plastic. If you have to use plastic for whatever reason, the most sustainable option is to use the highest percentage of post-consumer recycled regrind resin in that plastic. That’s a recycled material that’s in the plastic. There are considerations when using that, the color is going to be off. It might be a little bit more expensive. There may be compatibility issues, especially at higher percentages of plastic. There are some other considerations here.

I believe that the more that we use recycled material, and we’ve been seeing this in this space now for the last few years, the more the demand for PCR has gone up incredibly fast. The market is scrambling to find more materials to recycle. That means that less plastics are ending up in landfills and they are being captured because of the pull mechanism of the economics of recycling. That’s that part in terms of the hierarchy.

You’re a small brand and you want to make something with 100 units or 1,000 units. You can’t manufacture anything in the packaging world at under 5,000 units and do it sustainably. There’s a lot of waste every time you run something in packaging, whatever the material is. If you’re under 5,000 units, you recognize you’re in phase one of this product or your brand’s life.

You really can't manufacture anything in the packaging world at under 5000 units and do it sustainably. Share on X

There are stocking distributors throughout the world that have pre-made manufactured packaging that’s sitting in a warehouse that has already been made. The life cycle analysis of those is a lot lower than if you were to go out and make your own because they ran probably 100,000 of those at a time. You’re not adding additional packaging to the world. You’re taking what’s already been used.

From a business standpoint, it allows the brand to be flexible and agile with potential changes in consumer demands or new packaging formats. You learn a lot in those first few years of launching brands. There’s glass, aluminum, plastic, pumps, closures, and all different types of packaging that are being stocked here in the US that would probably be the best way to launch a brand.

That is amazing advice. I hope that everyone who’s reading takes some good notes because it’s hard at the beginning when you’re a new brand and you have all these ideas that you’re stuck on that you feel are going to make such a difference. These were such powerful words of wisdom. It’s so important for people to understand.

Some people refer to my speeches or talks on packaging as packaging therapy sessions because it’s a dose of reality that not a lot of people know about. The last thing that I would say on this topic to brand owners is, “Don’t be discouraged.” Early on, you’re going to focus on the things that matter, customer acquisition, branding, and figuring out your why. Getting all of those things figured out, getting your products out there in the market, and getting feedback from customers. That’s a fun part of a business.

The phases after that phase are when you can get creative as your quantities grow with your packaging to where you can make better decisions or different decisions about what’s being manufactured, what format we can use, and how we can move things forward. Don’t give up on it. Say, “These are the things we’re passionate about. This is why we’re choosing this packaging format for now. This is where we’re going to be in phases 2, 3, and 4 of our business.”

For everyone, when they’re starting a brand, they need to think of those future visions and scalability and what we’re looking to do. That’s important. Before we even started the show, I said how I had gone to the Luxe Pack show in New York City. For those of you who don’t know what that trade show is here in the US, it is one of the premier cosmetic packaging shows. It’s booth after booth of cosmetic packaging. I have been going to that show for many years, as a product developer, which I’ve been doing for a long time. I usually go and get inspiration and scout out what new trends are going on in packaging.

I was telling Brandon before we started recording that this was the first time I went, where almost every single booth talked about sustainability and that they were sustainable, “We have sustainable packaging, sustainable labeling, and sustainable printing.” It was overwhelming. On the one hand, it was very exciting to see the conversation because, years ago, people weren’t even talking about this. You would go into a booth and someone would say sustainable and they’d look at you cross-eyed. You didn’t even know what you were talking about. Now, everybody is having this conversation.

For someone who’s a newbie who’s excited, they go to the show, they try to find out what’s going on, what would be some advice to some new entrepreneurs going to a trade show like Luxe Pack? What would be good questions for them to be able to ask these different vendors to find out if they’re walking the walk and talking the talk with all of this noise in this space?

I would approach a show like that where a lot of claims are being made in a similar way as you would if you were going to a shady used car dealership. It’s not because there’s maybe this intentional desire to mislead people. Amy, you’re right. Years ago, I was working with Credo and I’m still on their clean beauty board as their sustainable packaging expert. I was helping them form their sustainable packaging guidelines.

I was going out to manufacturers saying, “There are going to be retailers that are going to be expecting and demanding brands to use recycled content in their packaging. What are you doing?” We work with 300 packaging manufacturers around the world. Years ago, there were probably only ten manufacturers in the world that we worked with that were like, “We already have a supplier for PCR. We already have this thing figured out.”

A lot of things are changing quickly. We all know with any type of change that happens quickly, the depth of understanding isn’t there yet. A lot of people are talking about sustainable packaging, but the depth, the lifecycle analysis, the chain of custody, or COC of material being tracked. There are things that are important to know. When it comes to compostability or biodegradability, there are actual certified processes that are going to determine what degree of compostability a certain item has.

Anyways, I would say that approaching it skeptically and asking for backup information from third-party organizations that have verified these sustainable packaging claims would be a good place to start. We could probably do a whole episode on what those claims would be for each one of the materials. That’s where my next advice on this is.

Find someone in the packaging industry that can be a good friend to you. When you come across ideas or proposals or solutions, you can shoot it over to them and say, “Is this legit? Is this real?” I’ve got 6 or 7 that I often go to that are way smarter than I am. I’d be more than happy, Amy, for all of your friends to feel free to have them reach out to me, too. I can at least do a quick sniff test and see if they’re on the right track or if it’s total baloney.

CBW 21 | Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging
Sustainable Cosmetic Packaging: Find someone in the packaging industry that can be a good friend to you. That when you come across ideas or proposals or solutions, you can shoot it over to them and say, “Hey, is this legit? Is this real?”

I’ll share one example of this. There’s a lot of development with mono-material or recyclable pumps. They’re pumps that are made out of 01 Plastic with no metal spring in there. Technically, if these were to be processed with the type of plastic that they’re made out of, they would get processed and recycled.  In every recycling facility, the thing that happens in the very beginning before anything is recycled is they’re sorted.

Anything that does not look like a consistent format that they can rely on to produce good outputs for them after they grind up everything, it’s got to be clean on the other side. If there’s a lot of contamination then it has no value to the market and no manufacturer will buy it. That’s why all of these things are important for recycled facilities to keep their inputs clean. They’re going to see a pump and assume that it’s multi-material and that there’s a metal spring in there. Guess what they do? They pull it out.

A lot of beauty brands are doing mono-material pumps and they’re telling their customers that these are recyclable. Customers are putting them into their blue bins, not knowing that in their local facility, there’s no way they’re going to capture them. Even if they leave them attached to the bottle, they’re probably going to be pulled out. I’ve asked probably 20 or so recycling facilities now for plastic. They’re like, “We wouldn’t knowingly allow the pump to go through.” Anyways, there’s another example of the sniff test.

Thank you for being so generous to offer your insight on all that. I had another question related to this. Where can someone learn about this? Are there websites? I know you’re involved with Pact and I would love you to talk a little bit about that. Where can someone get some trusted information about these different materials so they can educate themselves to ask the right questions and to understand when people are talking to them, what it is they’re saying? Are there certain online resources that we can go to learn more about this?

Credo has done a good job with its sustainable packaging guidelines and the goals that they have set forth. Following their curriculum or standards would be a great place to go. After that, the information is going to be different depending on the type of format and materials that you’re going for. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there’s one place where you can go to get feedback on everything, but there should be. Maybe there is. If I find it, I’ll be sure to share it with you.

Can you tell me a little bit more about Pact, what they do, and when it started? Give me a little background on that and how maybe an emerging brand can partner with them or learn more from them.

Pacific Packaging is a member of Pact. We’ve worked with a lot of brands that are trying to change their packaging to be accepted by Pact to have them recycled. I would highly encourage you to talk with them specifically about your brand and your products and what you think may work with their program. This is something that’s going to happen more and more in the US because there’s a huge gap between what is being recycled and then what’s not. All of that material that’s not is good material that we do want to capture. The main machine of recycling isn’t capable of capturing all of those things. Pact is taking a look at those things like TerraCycle was before. It’s like, “How can we capture this material?”

Pact focused on the beauty industry. They found recyclers that were interested and capable of recycling the packaging often found in the beauty industry that is not captured, especially on the plastic side. It was developing a system of drop-off points and partners with retailers across the world that would make it easier on customers to drop those items off.

Mailing things back to get recycled is a net negative for the planet because of the materials that are used to ship things and then the carbon impact that it has. A lot of brands are like, “Ship that plastic bottle back to me and I’ll make sure it gets recycled.” It would almost be better for the planet if they threw it away. It’s those dynamics that are driving these different programs and decisions and Pact is doing a great job at it.

I don’t think I have any more questions. You covered a lot of great areas, Brandon. This was amazing.

Thank you.

It was important for everyone to learn, even those of us who are using beauty products, and understand our impact as a consumer and what we can do from that end as well. I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to me about this and sharing it with people who are reading about sustainable packaging. This was amazing. Brandon, I appreciate it.

Thank you, Amy.

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About Brandon Frank

CBW 21 | Sustainable Cosmetic PackagingBrandon is passionate about sustainable packaging. He works closely with brands to navigate, discover, and develop eco-packaging that is unique, effective, and affordable. Brandon is President of Pacific Packaging Components (P.P.C.) a 50 year old packaging company, President of the Southern California chapter for the Institute of Packaging Professionals, serves on the Industry Advisory Council for the National Association of Container Distributors, is an active member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

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