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THE TRUE COST OF MAGNETS

THE TRUE COST OF MAGNETS

August 21, 2020

Found in almost every compact, lipstick, and palette, magnets are a mainstay in the beauty world. They keep products shut, create that satisfying ‘click’, keep refillable inserts in place, and recently they’ve even been put inside products like false eyelashes and as actual ingredients in skincare masks (scary).

Why are magnets in beauty packaging? Beauty products are still using the same basic packaging design created in the 1970’s – a time when sustainable and conscious packaging was definitely not yet a thing. Manufacturers were not worried about their environmental impact, they weren’t trying to source responsibly, manage waste, or avoid unethical practices. And honestly, all this reckless production is what got us into this mess. 50 years ago though, we didn’t know any better. Now we do. And we need to do better.

And in some ways, packaging and product formulation is actually getting less and less sustainable. As plastic reigns supreme, and magnets become the latest gimmick, we’re actually going further and further backward. Even refillable cosmetics are guilty of relying on the entirely unsustainable magnet.

WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT MAGNETS?

Not recyclable

Magnets are never recyclable.  Even if all other elements of a package are recyclable – the magnet renders it trash. And considering magnets are in most of the 120 billion units of beauty packaging produced every year, that’s A LOT of magnet waste. 

magnets-unrecyclable

Processing is harmful to the environment

Magnets are made from ‘rare earth’ elements, whose processing is hugely harmful to the environment. Massive amounts of carcinogenic toxins are used to separate the elements, and their ore often contains radioactive materials.

2000 tons of toxic waste are produced for every 1 ton of rare earths extracted. In Baotou alone, 10 million tons of toxic waste are produced every year from rare earth processing. And where does this wastewater end up? It starts in tailing ponds but often winds up in local waterways, the soil, and the air.

The two ways to process rare earth elements:

  1. Remove the soil and move it to a leaching pond. Then add highly toxic chemicals to separate the materials from each other. These chemicals pollute the air and leach into the groundwater.
  1. Drill holes into the ground, insert pipes and hoses to pump toxic chemicals directly into the earth. Remove this mixture and move to a leaching pond to separate the materials. This has the same issues, but it’s potentially worse since the chemicals are pumped directly into the earth.

Many mines also store large pools of wastewater that can pour into local waterways. While China (the main producer of rare earth minerals) is starting to take steps in cleaning up this dirty industry, much of the damage has already been done and the progress is slow. 

rare-earth-mining

Image: David Gray 

Long-term health effects on people

In a small village in China lives the world’s largest rare earth tailing pond, created in the 1950s. It’s unlined so it’s toxic contents constantly leach into the groundwater which every year is advancing 20-30 meters closer to Northern China’s major source of drinking water. 

Even worse, rare earth mining has been done near uranium deposits, leading to an accumulation of radioactive material left in the area. Human exposure to uranium leads to serious immediate and long-term health effects.  

China produces 90% of all rare earth materials, and even the small amount that is mined in the US is shipped to China for processing. That means every magnet we use has been created under these conditions.

Long-term effects on wildlife & fish

The fish who live in these contaminated waters and the wildlife who drink from it feel the impacts directly. And of course, this contamination moves up the food chain, impacting larger animals and humans who consume them.  

REMOVING MAGNETS FROM THE BEAUTY WORLD

Removing magnets would take us one step closer to sustainable, low-waste beauty packaging AND it would take us away from the devastating environmental and health effects that come with magnets. Really, magnets are a tiny convenience that we can easily live without. Let’s petition brands and retailers to get rid of magnets in their next packaging iterations. Let’s let them know magnets are not important to us and we’re happy to live without them. 

WHAT WE USE INSTEAD OF MAGNETS

An elastic! Snip it off when your palette’s empty and reuse as a hair tie! The rest of the palette is then fully recyclable

aether-beauty-eyeshadow-palettes

WHAT CAN BE DONE OVERALL FOR MAGNETS

Right now, the world is super dependant on magnets and rare earth metals in general. Smartphones, cars, renewable energy sources all depend on them heavily. Which means they’re not going away overnight. The best thing we can do is start small – first in the beauty world and then beyond. The good news is, other bigger industries are starting to move away from rare earth metals too – Honda is right now creating hybrid cars with almost no rare earth elements.  

As consumers, the best we can do is stay informed and choose the most sustainable options available. Let brands know that sustainability and ethical production is important to you – demand transparency and encourage brands to learn their supply chains and materials inside and out. We can easily innovate beyond our current unsustainable ways and choose better for the environment and for ourselves.

_____________________

Thanks for coming along with us on the journey to a more sustainable, ethical, earth-friendly beauty industry!

- Āether Beauty xo



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