Shaving didn’t always look like it does today. It wasn’t always a massive commercial market, churning out huge amounts of waste and pollution, and the tide may just be turning as people become aware it doesn’t have to be like that now wither.

Before the invention of the disposable razor, Gillette had a major monopoly in the shaving market. Men would originally shave at the barber or with a straight razor that would be sharpened and reused until Gillette invented the safety razor, making a fortune selling cheap disposable safety razor blades that would be continually replaced. This changed in 1975 when French company Société BIC developed the first completely disposable razor.

It was a huge success: made of plastic, cheap, and convenient to use, it appealed to people who didn’t want to change safety razor blades regularly. Other companies soon followed suit, and the razor industry is now one of the most profitable consumer markets in the world. In 2020 an estimated 158.10 million people in the U.S. alone used disposable razors, a number predicted to increase to 160.16 million by 2024.

But with this business boom, comes environmental issues we need to consider.

Plastic waste in landfill

With that amount of consumption comes a whole lot of waste. Though not technically ‘single-use’, billions of plastic razors are sent to landfill each year. Most razors are made from mixed materials, making them almost impossible to recycle.

In order to send it through your curbside or municipal recycling program, the logistics and processing of the razors is actually more than the value of the material for the processing facilities. They can’t make a profit from it, so it’s deemed non-recyclable.

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Most disposable razors only last for 6-9 shaves, after which they become blunt and head to landfill. The average person who shaves daily or near-daily can be expected to go through some 40-50 disposable razors annually. As if this wasn’t bad enough, a dull blade can tug on your hair and pull at skin, making someone more likely to develop razor burn or irritation, so it’s not even a nicer experience.

In the 1990s, the EPA estimated that approximately 2 billion pounds of disposable razors were thrown out in America. The data hasn’t been updated in the 34 years since (with no plans to update it either) meaning that, while this number gets thrown around a lot online, the true statistics are likely to be significantly higher. That’s a lot of waste. 

Carbon footprint

Conventional disposable razors also have a much higher carbon footprint than reusable options. They’re usually shipped in more bulky plastic packaging, requiring more fossil fuels for packaging and transport. They also use up more resources in manufacturing, as plastic handles are manufactured again and again, rather than simply replacement blades or heads. One carbon calculation and tree planting organisation estimated (based on publicly available data from a handful of companies who release the life cycle metrics of some of their razors) that one disposable and non-recyclable plastic razor generally creates 43 grams, or 0.095 pounds, of CO2 per use. So, if you use one disposable plastic razor at least 10 times before throwing it away, then you will generate at least a 1.1kg, or 2.5-pound, carbon footprint annually.

However, because razor mixed materials are plastic, which has a whopping 1.8 billion ton carbon footprint, and steel, with over 2 billion tons of metal products manufactured annually and responsible for over 40% of industrial greenhouse gases, the carbon footprint of disposable razors is likely to be even higher.

The health problem

There’s also the question of impacts on human health. The more obvious of this is that plastic razors, like other forms of plastic, don’t biodegrade but break down into smaller and smaller microplastics, eventually entering waterways and food chains. Microplastics are known to contain toxins that harm human and ecological health, while plastic waste is often mistaken for food by animals and birds, causing severe damage when ingested.

Beyond the razor itself, the moisture strip built into disposable razors may contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that can have a range of negative health consequences. Depending on the brand you select, the moisture strip may also contain butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), a lab-produced chemica. Studies suggest that long-term exposure to BHT can have lung and liver tumour-promoting effects.

The solutions

Bearing all of these issues in mind, there are a few options that you can switch to instead, including:

Safety Razors

A reusable razor that’s usually made from metal, known as a safety razor. It uses a double-edged blade, offering a closer and more versatile shave than disposable razors. The only part that needs disposal is the blade, with people usually keeping used blades in a safe place, such as a blade bank, to take to recycling plants later. Certain razor brands also have blade take-back programs, allowing you to send used razor blades to the manufacturer for responsible recycling. Others also offer regular subscription services for replacement razor blades, often prioritising sustainability by using recyclable packaging and blade recycling.

Safety razors do tend to be sharper, as they’re designed to remove hair with one pass of the razor on the skin. This reduces the chance of razor burn, ingrown hairs and irritation, but also may take a little time to get used to technique-wise. You need little to no pressure when shaving, unlike using disposables, so when you first get started take your time and be gentle. 

Eco-Friendly Disposable Razors

For some people, this information won’t be enough to convince them to make a switch to safety razors. I know people in my own life like this, who either really don’t like reusable razors or don’t feel up to trying them right now. For those people, there are still alternatives to plastic. Eco Origin’s razors are made from wheat straw, a leftover from wheat farming, and packaged in fully recyclable, eco-friendly packaging to provide a plastic free option.

Shaving creams and soaps

Traditional shaving creams often use aerosol propellants, which can include ingredients like butane and propane. These hydrocarbons are a source of greenhouse gases which have a higher warming effect than carbon dioxide, while also adding to indoor air pollution in your own home. Instead, opt for eco-friendly options that use natural ingredients and packaging, or solid shaving soaps. These soaps are also a much better moisturising option, rather than potentially toxic strips on conventionaldisposable options.

At the end of the day, if shaving is important to you, then there are more eco-friendly and conscious ways to go about it. Just take a little time to research what works best for you, and you’ll be all set!