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Cosmetics Firms Going Green With Recycling Programs

Those products that make us colorful, smooth and fragrant have an ugly side: waste.

Containers of cosmetics -- makeup and personal care potions -- routinely land in the trash. Some companies are giving consumers incentive to recycle, by offering free products for used containers and selling refills to eliminate the need for new packaging. And, observers note, many are incorporating more recycled materials from the start.

Virginia Lee, research analyst at Euromonitor International in Chicago, calls the trend "feel-good capitalism" and "environmental chic," explaining that natural, Earth-friendly, or "green," products increasingly attract consumers.

"It's hip to be green," Lee said.

Shoppers' options include:

-- MAC's Back to MAC program: Bring or mail in six MAC containers and receive a lipstick.

-- Ecco Bella's Lipstick Recycling Program: Through May, trade five empty or used lipstick tubes of any brand for an Ecco Bella lipstick at select locations, including a number of Whole Foods Markets.

-- Kiehl's Since 1851's extended Earth Day promotion: Through June, Kiehl's is giving a free product of the customer's choice in exchange for three empty Kiehl's containers.

-- LIP INK® International's color refill program: Mail in lip color vials for refills that cost less than half the price of a replacement.

-- Consumer-refillable cases: Several companies, including Aveda and Mary Kay, sell refills that fit into previously purchased product containers.

"It really helps the customer to get a value ... to refresh her look" while cutting waste, said Christal Fisher, vice president of product integrity at Dallas-based Mary Kay Inc.

Cosmetics companies over the last several years have been trying different recycling strategies.

Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition in Washington, said it's still unclear which methods have the greatest impact.

"At some point a company has to say: Does this really make sense?" Krebs said, adding that the recycling innovators refresh their programs instead of abandoning them.

Burt's Bees, for example, once promoted a lip balm tube recycling program, but the Durham, N.C., company is phasing it out in favor of packaging with recycled content and aluminum containers that consumers can recycle in their communities along with beverage cans.

The lip balm program "was actually creating more waste than we were anticipating," said Burt's Bees spokeswoman Allison Lane. Customers were mailing tubes using "lots of cardboard, lots of bubble wrap, lots of tape," she said. Not exactly environmentally kind.

Likewise, London-based Body Shop's U.S. stores used to offer refills and accept containers for recycling. But spokeswoman Sally Robb Haims said too much of the packaging was ending up in landfills because it wasn't recyclable.

Now the focus is on creating more Earth-conscious containers, Haims said: "We are encouraging suppliers to used recycled materials."

Analysts say recycling was a natural next move for an industry that has worked to reduce product testing on animals. Numerous brands, including those mentioned in this article, have either never practiced such testing or have eliminated its use.

"It's about `I've got a conscience"' for both company leaders and consumers, said Liz Crawford, vice president and a consumer strategist at Iconoculture Inc., a trend forecasting firm in Minneapolis. "It's about social responsibility."