Not that long ago, I spent an entire year of my life steeped in nail polish. I worked for a nail magazine and wrote about everything from industry innovations to how to choose the correct nail file grit. I left not only with a gel polish qualification, but a very big stash of nail lacquer bottles.
During lockdown, I decided to tackle my overflowing collection (does anyone need four different OPI nudes?) and after culling plenty of bottles on I was left wondering what to do with them. And it was World Earth Day. Could my nail polish bottles be recycled?
I spoke with various nail polish brands, some with the recycling symbol on the bottle, others without. Some said that because of the hazardous materials found in nail varnish, the glass bottles weren't recyclable even if they’ve been thoroughly rinsed with nail polish remover (have you ever tried to rinse out nail varnish?). Others said that after rinsing, the bottle could be put in your normal household recycling as glass.
I contacted Terracycle , who are pros at recycling typically hard-to-recycle waste, but who stop short of taking nail varnish bottles themselves. "Nail polish bottles are particularly difficult to recycle," their PR spokesperson Sam Angel confirmed.
"Despite most nail polish bottles being made from glass, containers and packaging must be completely emptied of their contents to avoid contamination. In some cases, packaging which has not been completely emptied or which has been disposed of incorrectly will contaminate an entire recycling bin and can result in entire loads of otherwise recyclable waste being sent to landfill or incineration.
"This is why consumers are advised not to put nail polish bottles in the recycling bin as, in general, when a nail polish bottle is thrown away it is often because it is too dry to be applied and rarely because it is completely empty."
I contacted Helena Biggs, managing editor of nail industry magazine Scratch for her insight about recyling polish bottles. She recently attended a seminar about cosmetics recycling but the consensus wasn't clear. "The key argument for not recycling nail polish bottles was that, as the components of the bottles are so small, it would take far more energy and resources to clean them than it would be worth recycling them," she told me.
Despite this, many brands I spoke to said their bottles were recyclable – the one thing that they all agreed on was that the brush and lid couldn’t be recycled.
Cienna Rose , Nails Inc , Mavala and Barry M concurred that the bottle needed to be thoroughly cleaned with acetone and dried. "Although it can be a little lengthy, you must clean them out with an acetone solution," said Barry M. "Once the glass part of the bottle is empty and clean, this part can then be recycled. " They added, "We're actively working to come up with a speedier and simpler solution to encourage all of our customers to recycle their bottles.”
Halal-certified nail polish brand Orly which is free of the main 13 nasties, say their bottles aren’t recyclable yet. The same goes for CND, who make some of my favourite shades (Cake Pop forever) but the company makes contributions to recycling schemes to offset this.
Cheap-and-cheerful brand Essense , based in Germany where recycling has long been a priority, make the polish bottles for the Shine and Last and Go ranges from 20 per cent post-industrial recycled glass and five per cent post-consumer recycled glass. In Germany, both the bottles and brushes can be recycled once the product is dried completely; here in the UK, the brand says that the glass bottle can be recycled so long as there’s very little dried product left inside.
What's happening with all those empty nail bar bottles? Distributor Louella Belle which sells to professional has stepped up to create a recycling scheme that will take empty nail polish, gel polish and cuticle oil bottles from salons and dispose of them sustainably. The items are collected by a recycling company and sorted into different materials, which are then recycled or reused.
A spokesperson for Louella Belle told Scratch Magazine : “Most public kerbside recycling programmes will not accept varnish/gel bottles at present. Louella Belle is working towards being more mindful towards recycling, and our key aim is to make being sustainable as easy as possible for customers and rewarding them for their efforts." When four or more empties are sent back to them in the pre-paid eco envelope, the company gives a 15 per cent discount off the next order.
So where does that leave us, especially now that home manis seem to be soaring? The week that lockdown began (March 23rd) saw sales of nail products in the UK increasing by 24 per cent year on year, according to market research body NPD Group.
This surge in nail polish buying means that were are more beholden than ever to make sure that the bottles and the hazardous waste they may contain if they aren't cleaned properly don't become landfill.
Buying nail polishes free of nasties is one option that's better for the environment. As is mindful shopping – only buying polish we know we will love enough to use up (no neon blue, then) so we're not left with unloved colours dried up in bottles that then become impossible to clean well enough to recycle.
Here’s how to recycle nail polish bottles
1. Clear all of the old nail polish out of the bottle by pouring a small amount of nail polish remover into the bottle. Screw the cap back on and shake the bottle vigorously a few times.
2. You'll see the polish thin quickly. Pour out the polish onto a recycled paper towel (do not put down your sink or toilet).
3. Repeat these steps until the liquid that you pour out is completely clear and has no nail polish left.
4. Rinse with water and leave to dry.