Packaging with rice paper: Israel’s future of makeup is green

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When it comes to packaging and product design, the beauty industry has not yet reinvented itself. Designers like Shani Levy are breaking away from traditional designs by addressing the waste they produce.

When looking at prevailing trends in the makeup and cosmetics world, sustainability is perhaps the most dominant one. Beauty companies are continually working on making their formulas cleaner, cruelty-free, and environment-friendly.

However, the packaging of these products remains conventional, old-school, and everything but ecological. The plastic and aluminium containers used for packaging overshadow any ‘sustainable’ and ‘ecological’ labels attached to the product. According to Zero Waste Week, more than 120 billion units of packaging are produced every year by the global cosmetics industry. These packages and containers are non-biodegradable and contribute to microplastic pollution. The cardboard that envelops beauty products contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year.

Challenging this design consensus is Shani Levy, a graduate of Israel’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. She created Glow to Go, a two-dimensional set of makeup tools, where makeup is imprinted on single-use rice papers that can be tossed and recycled after use. The slightly thicker paper binding the rice papers together is also made out of recyclable paper. This form of binding requires less use of raw material for wrapping, due to a significant decrease in the product’s surface area. The makeup set is designed while considering the environmental implications of beauty products and addresses makeup’s cumbersome and polluting packaging.

When asked about the guiding principles that lead her in the process of designing the product, Levy stresses on “making makeup more ecological”. She says that when researching sustainable practices within the beauty industry, she was struck by the number of companies that flaunt their chemical-free makeup formulas while using the same packaging as most luxury makeup brands.

“The deeper I dived into the details of the beauty world, I realised that up until now, ‘makeup innovation’ mainly revolved around the formula of the product, but did not address what the product looks like. While clean brands’ formulas might be safe to use, they are packaged in plastic-coated cylinders,” says Levy. She’s right when raising the question: “How is it that my lipstick still looks just like the lipstick my mom had 30 years ago?” When exploring the products out there, she says they all followed the same flawed, normative, monotonous designs we have seen for the past decades.

makeup packaging
Photo: Shani Levy

Research and experimentation with different materials and methods for makeup led Levy to rice paper. “I discovered that using rice paper for makeup application existed in ancient times in China. When I learnt this technology had been in use in the past, it incentivised me to examine its possibilities.” Levy fell in love with rice paper and the way it reacted to the touch of her face. But most importantly, she says she was excited to discover how well the paper could carry the makeup.

To design this new and innovative concept, Levy had to unlearn the iconic image she had of makeup and how it should function. “I asked myself: do I want to help preserve the iconic shape and appearance that we have seen for the last decades, or do I want to fight this design consensus.” Challenging the culturally agreed-upon designs required her to create a new language for her product. “I wanted to experience makeup anew, to be able to think about it regardless of what I and generations of women before me have grown to know”.

Levy’s research led her to come up with a design that is not only more ecological, but also more practical; she managed to maximise the amount of makeup the customers can carry with them in the least space possible. Also, her packaging accommodates several shades of makeup in one tiny package. “Thanks to the paper’s characteristics, I was able to package ten different makeup shades in one package to carry on-the-go. No need to carry ten shades of lipsticks, eyeshadow, blushes, or brushes. These packages are flat, thin, and light, which allows consumers to carry as many shades as they would like and still be able to fit them all in their wallet.”

rice paper makeup
Photo: Shani Levy

It was important for Levy to challenge the typical squared format of paper, and therefore had it customised for the purpose of makeup application. “I wanted to detach from the way women have been applying makeup, to layoff the intermediate tools such as brushes and sponges, and use the paper itself for application,” she says.

“When I designed the shape and thickness of the paper, I relied on common facial expressions and gestures that accompany the makeup application ritual. The paper became my working tool, assisting me in bettering the user experience. When I had the paper shapes finalised, I went back to thinking about how to make recyclable and biodegradable packaging and avoid excess packaging without compromising on the product’s aesthetics.”

Plastic is so firmly embedded in modern supply chains that limiting its ubiquity will inevitably be a painful process, especially because the beauty and personal care industry is growing by several percents each year. Even if the packaging is more efficient, there is still more of it. To solve this plastic-shaped problem will require a joint effort across companies of all sizes. 

Only recently have some interesting alternatives began to appear in the beauty world, primarily bio-sourced and biodegradable plastics (though most of the options have their own set of downsides). Unfortunately, the options are not there yet, and the smaller brands have to ride the tailwinds of the larger companies while these are pushing for research and development. But at the same time, the smaller brands and their customers are the ones driving the conversation forward.

Levy’s product was created under the guidance of Yaron Loubaton at the Industrial Design Department in Betzalel Academy of Art and Design.

Aviv Nesher
Aviv Nesher is a current Schwartzman scholar studying her master’s in management science in global affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. She works at the intersections of environmental action, trend analysis, and sustainable fashion. Her writing revolves around integrating sustainable practices within different industries and markets, and policy development that generates sustainable impact. Aviv has been vegan for five years and raw vegan for one year. She believes that transitioning into a plant-based diet is one of the most significant steps individuals can take to tackle the eco-climate crisis. Aviv is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a United World College alumna, and a Huayu Scholarship recipient.