Katie Barnes
Katie Barnes

Revealed: The beauty products that can & can’t be recycled

By Katie Barnes | 18 March 2024 | Expert Advice, Feature, Sustainability & the environment

Recycling Canva

Recycling is a challenge for small businesses, particularly in terms of getting hold of services or outlets for the small volumes of waste materials that are produced.

For beauty and nail professionals, this can prove even more difficult.

While some specialist collection services do exist in some areas, they are not consistent and may prove expensive. Unfortunately, most of the waste our industry produces doesn’t fit into the ‘likely to be collected’ materials. Every local authority and private collection company is different, so it is important to get in touch with them. From speaking with various local authorities, private collection companies and sustainability charities, this has been the general outcome. I also discovered, just because we send something to be recycled, it doesn’t mean it is. If the area does not have the facilities to process that item, it will still end up in landfill.

Many products we dispose of in the beauty industry are considered contaminated and therefore not recyclable:

  • Tissue/kitchen roll – soaked with monomer or nail products.
  • Cotton wool/lint free wipes – soaked with antibacterial spray/IPA, facial or cleansing products. Regular cotton pads don’t biodegrade due to the bleaching and mixing processes used to create them.
  • Brushes – with aluminium handles and kolinsky sable or synthetic hair, which have been used with nail products.
  • Nail files – with a plastic core and coated in sandpaper, which come into contact with the client’s nails.
  • Glitter – in contact with nail products and spilt.
  • Dust and product waste from enhancement products.

Unfortunately, in the quantities we recycle, most private companies will not collect these items and local authorities will consider them contaminated, as they have come into contact with a customer. They are considered in the same category as nappies, which then starts the debate of separate collection due to risk. Anything which has come into contact with a client, with blood/bodily fluids (wax strips etc), acrylic filings, residue, any cardboard or item that is stained/dirty with paint, product or dirt cannot be recycled.


We must not demonise plastic, as we would be without a career. Did you know that most plastics originate from crude oil? This is how nail products are also made. It can take up to a thousand years for a piece of plastic to fully degrade. What we can do to help the environment is cut down on single use and non-recyclable plastics that are not able to be repurposed.

There are eight types of plastic and each needs to be treated differently.

Recyclable plastics:

  • PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is the most commonly used plastic, found in items such as water bottles and some of our beauty packaging. Trigger sprays cannot be recycled.
  • HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) is the stiff plastic used to make containers such as bottles and the most likely used plastic for our beauty industry product containers.
  • PP (Polypropylene) is often used in cotton wool and wipes. Many places now recycle polypropylene to make items like battery cases, brooms and bins.

Non-recyclable plastics:

  • LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) can be found in shrink wraps, squeezable bottles and plastic wrappers.
  • PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is the flexible plastic used to make plastic wrap, blister packaging and more. Although it is not recyclable, PVC can be repurposed.
  • PS (Polystyrene) is most often used to make styrofoam and foam packaging.
  • The ‘other plastic’ is every other plastic category not listed above. It includes both non-recyclable and ‘biodegradable’ plastics. Polylactic acid (PLA) comes under this category of plastic. It is made from plant-starch instead of petroleum, and is therefore marketed as ‘biodegradable.’
  • Bioplastic is becoming a popular alternative for single-use plastic items like straws and utensils. Bioplastic simply refers to plastic made from plant or other biological material, instead of petroleum. These products, however, are more expensive.


While glitter is seen as a ‘must’ for many nail techs, let’s look at the bigger issue. Most glitter products are made from PET plastic, which contributes to the growing problem of microplastics in the environment. Microplastics have a detrimental impact on marine life. Some ‘eco’ glitters are plant-based but coated in plastic. They are often coated with aluminium for reflectivity, then topped with a thin plastic layer. Another form is mica glitter, which is increasingly used in cosmetics.

How do glitter companies get away with calling a product that’s coated with plastic biodegradable? That’s because terms such as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘eco’ are not regulated, resulting in manufacturers putting them on their packaging without any verification.

Tests on ordinary glitter, biodegradable and mica have been carried out, with findings that mica glitters caused the same effects to the ecological system as PET glitters. In addition, biodegradable glitter also had a negative effect on the marine food chain.

One of the issues with glitter is that the excess is washed off in sinks or laundry, subsequently entering the water system. One step to make a small difference is to look at the way in which we clean up glitter.


Glass can be recycled indefinitely. Several local authorities confirmed that glass recyclers are mainly looking for glass from food packaging, rather than other types of glass, and that nail polish bottles and other industry used glasses cannot be recycled.

Furthermore, putting nail polish bottles in your recycling can contaminate the whole contents and make it all redundant for recycling.

Louella Belle, has set up recycling scheme, RecycleBelle, which takes empty nail polish, gel polish and cuticle oil bottles and disposes of them sustainably.

Metal tools

Metal tools are recyclable and would need to be collected by a private company, such as Green Salon Collective. This may prove costly or difficult if only recycling a small amount. Taking care of your nail tools, following manufacturer’s instructions with use, care and cleaning will help the longevity of your tools, reducing the need to replace. Resharpening and servicing your tools is one of the few types of recycling where you will see a benefit immediately.

Aluminium foil

Aluminium foil can be recycled and re-melted infinitely to be made into new aluminium products. However, if it is considered contaminated, it cannot be recycled. Cans and aerosols can be recycled. Consider separating your cotton pad from the foil and contacting your disposal or local authority to find out their stance on recycling the foil element.

Nail Files

Nail files

Nail files are cardboard and sometimes have a plastic core coated with sandpaper. At least one entire football stadium can be filled each year with disposed nail files and it takes years for one to fully decompose in the ground. Local authorities advise these cannot be recycled due to being contaminated.

Metal files are more sustainable because of the lack of trees used in their production, and only the sandpaper is disposed of between use. They are also considered more hygienic. However, they take a lot longer than standard nail files to decompose in landfills.

Glass nail files are often considered the most sustainable, as they are largely made from recycled materials and several factories use lead-free, environmentally safe dyes. They are considered recyclable by some, but the majority will consider these contaminated waste.


LED is potentially more than 80% energy efficient than traditional bulbs. This is more positive on the environment and your energy bills.

Only incandescent and halogen bulbs can be disposed of with your regular waste, although some LEDs can be disposed of in this way too. LED bulbs, however, can often be recycled.

Fluorescent tubes and UV bulbs need to be disposed of correctly, following local authority guidance to have their mercury safely removed and the aluminium and steel separated.


This includes items such as orange wood sticks, spatulas etc. If we think to when we use these, we only use ¾ to ½ of the length. If you remove the contaminated part, the remainder can be recycled.

You don’t have to do everything at once; small changes add up and make an impact to help the growing detrimental impact on the environment.

Love Katie B x