Urth is a line of sustainable lipsticks with minimal impact on the environment, without compromising beauty, practicality, and glamour. Single-use plastic is becoming an alarming threat to our planet. By 2015, humankind had generated about 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste, and the trend of production is alarmingly ramping up. It has been estimated that over the next 30 years, we will produce four times more plastic waste than we have to date and that by 2050 we will have dumped in the environment about 13 billion metric tons of plastic waste (source: Science Advances). One way to address this challenge and play a role in reversing this destruction process is in the introduction of new materials, and the facilitation of new conscious behaviors among consumers. The cosmetics industry contributes significantly to pollution, with an estimate of almost 7.9 billion units of rigid plastic created in the U.S alone in 2018 just for beauty and personal care products (source: Euromonitor International). Luxury packaging at an extremely low cost relies on the assembly of sophisticated and numerous parts made of conventional plastics.
Our team redesigned one of the top-selling lipsticks currently on the market, utilizing innovative biodegradable bio-based materials derived from algae, and extending the product life by making it conveniently refillable. The minimalistic yet glamorous design of the new lipstick results in a product that is fully compostable if disposed of in the environment. The long-term burden on the environment is eliminated by a product that, when disposed of, will completely biodegrade after a few weeks, instead of persisting in landfills or oceans for thousands of years. We also believe that an important way to make a process more sustainable is by trying to utilize as many byproducts as possible during production. Since the bio-plastics used for our new packaging are derived from algae, we explored the possibility to also utilize pigments and nutrients extracted from the same algae as ingredients for our lipstick formulation. The concept we present relies on the idea of minimizing waste also at the stage of raw materials production, by repurposing components and ingredients available in the original feedstock that would otherwise have no use.
Today, consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of reducing environmental impact and are seeking products that help fulfill that goal. Studies from a 2015 Nielsen poll found that 66% of global consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable products, with the number jumping to 72% amongst millennials.
With Urth, we introduce a redesigned cosmetic product that answers to the consumers' desire to live a positive synergy with the environment, reducing their footprint without renouncing functionality and beauty.
Consumers often believe that because something has a recyclable logo on the label, it can be recycled. Unfortunately, National Geographic reports that 91% of plastic produced globally is NOT recycled or is unable to be recycled. This lack of recycling has led to a Texas-sized plastic island, floating around the Pacific Ocean, leading scientists to believe that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050. Notably, as of 2015, only 9% of all plastics ever produced had been recycled (Geyer et al. 2017). On the other hand, the cost of recycling plastics is often close to or in some cases, such as with PET plastics, greater than the cost of producing virgin plastics, making plastic recycling a less economically attractive option (Merrington 2017). Recycling becomes even trickier, and as a result never pursued, for small yet complex objects requiring materials separation from complicated assemblies. A small lipstick, with the conventional design we are used to, will never be recycled in the current industrial world and can therefore be more hazardous to the environment than large bulk items that tend to be treated at their end-of-life.
To tackle these issues, we focused on rethinking the overall lipstick design by:
1.Substituting current materials with biodegradable bio-based plastics derived from algae
2.Adopting a minimalistic design
3.Allowing refilling and therefore re-use of the same packaging, extending the product life before disposal
4.Introducing ingredients from algae in the lipstick formulation, with the goal of optimizing the use of raw ingredients from a single source
The main goal of our design process was to introduce a lipstick with low impact on the environment, without limiting our aesthetic preference. In most cases, new sustainable materials present limitations in terms of durability, processability, and look, and for this reason, they are hardly usable for luxury cosmetic packaging that requires good properties in terms of finishing and appearance. In our research, we identified a biodegradable plastic newly developed within the Center for Renewable Materials at UC San Diego. In particular, we selected a polyester-polyurethane derived from algae. This material is a thermoplastic that can be processed and have the same properties as conventional petroleum-based plastics but is fully biodegradable in the environment. Lab tests have proved that this material will disappear in your home compost pile in about 12 weeks. This is remarkably different from the degradation of bioplastics currently marketed as biodegradable such as PLA, which are biodegradable only in industrial composting sites. This means that our lipstick would completely disappear if disposed of in the environment, without contributing to plastics pollution. We chose to look into algae-based materials because algae are recognized to be the most renewable feedstock. Microalgae, in particular, are a highly sustainable feedstock due to: (1) rapid growth in scalable ponds, bioreactors, or fermentation tanks, (2) utilization of non-potable water and non-arable land, (3) inexpensive media costs and near-complete utilization of nutrients, (4) biomass production with essentially no fossil energy inputs or net greenhouse gas emissions because of the large amount of CO2 sequestered during algae cultivation. Recent studies reported in the literature showed in fact that the algae oil necessary to produce the bioplastics we used could be produced with essentially no fossil energy inputs or net greenhouse gases emissions because of the large amount of CO2 sequestered during algae cultivation (e.g., to produce 1 Kg of microalgae, about 2 Kg of CO2 are typically sequestered).
The current biological content of the thermoplastics we use is about 60%, with the remaining 40% still derived from petroleum. However, it has already been demonstrated that it will be possible to achieve around 98% total renewable content in the next 2-3 years, with the material being scalable for industrial use. This is potentially the most sustainable plastic that one could think of, particularly for its biodegradability without compromising performance. This will allow the material not to be derived from a source (petroleum) that is not renewable and responsible for significant carbon emissions during extraction.
In addition to being the source of polymers and fatty acids used for the production of the bio-plastic we use, microalgae are capable to secrete products, such as carotenoids and other nutrients, that can be further used for the creation of lipstick. In our design process, as a proof of concept, we tested the extraction of pigments from different strains of microalgae. Algae are already used in cosmetics, mainly for skincare and as nutrient elements. Some strains of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) synthesize specific molecules that absorb UV and research is being conducted on how to use them to make eco-friendly sunscreen. With our design project, we not only present a newly designed lipstick, but we also want to introduce the concept of utilizing algae as a 360-degree source of materials to produce lipstick, from packaging to ingredients. The biodiversity of microalgae is enormous and they represent an almost untapped resource, with an incredible potential to innovate a daily product such as lipstick.