Published in November 2009
Grow Your Own...
Tim Hunt asks, how do we get a clean shave and cut the environmental costs of razors and shaver?
From bio-plastics to cut-throat razors, we look into the market for wet and dry shavers. We also investigate ways to combat waste from disposables, and look at different shaving technologies. Towards the end of the report two women explore the social pressures that drive us towards hairlessness.
A Disposable Culture
As you would expect from a product that is used by most adults, the UK market is huge. Around £265m per year is spent on wet-shave razors and £104m on electric or dry shavers.(8) From packaging to handles and blades, much of our expenditure on wet shaving ends up in landfill. It is estimated that in the USA over 20 billion disposable razors are thrown into landfill every year.(3)
So the big question is: How can we combat this waste problem? There are several shaving options that definitely won’t help.
The Economist recently came to the conclusion that, based on what mathematicians call the ‘power-law curve’, the “14-bladed razor should arrive in 2100”.(3) In the meantime we will simply have to make do with the five blades of Gillette Fusion. This is probably among the least environmentally friendly razors. It comes in a mass of packaging and its disposable head is large and unnecessarily elaborate with many components. You may be able to reuse the handle but Gillette could be criticised for periodically bringing out new models and phasing out old ones. This means that within a couple of years your handle is likely to become obsolete and that too will end up in landfill.
The standard disposable razor (classically the orange BIC or Tesco’s own brand) is another environmental non-starter. You will only get a couple of uses out of it before it goes into landfill. It is not recommended that consumers break it down into component parts for recycling due to health and safety concerns.
One solution to this waste problem could be taxation. A report recently suggested re-categorising disposable razors as luxury goods. This would allow them to be taxed at a higher rate, raising prices, reducing demand and therefore helping to cut down on landfill.
The report, commissioned from Eunomia Research & Consulting by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), says: “Some products considered ‘luxury’, such as alcohol and tobacco, have heavy duties on them. If disposable products were categorised in a similar way they could be subjected to similar duties.” The authors claim that if disposable razors were taxed at the same rate as cigarettes – about 80 per cent of the price goes to the Treasury – a single Gillette Mach 3 would leap from £1 to £5.(5)
A similar report was released by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Green Alliance. They also suggest that a tax should be placed on disposable products. Talking to the BBC, IPPR director Nick Pearce said it was up to businesses to take “greater responsibility for the whole life of products, by paying a product tax that goes towards payment for disposal”.(6)
Taxation has worked in the past. The landfill tax has helped reduce the volume of waste going to landfill by 28% since 1997.6 Denmark has taxed some disposable products since 1982 and many forms of packaging since 1999. Since the taxes were introduced sales of these products have declined. In Belgium, levies have been threatened on disposable razors, while disposable cameras and batteries are already subject to additional taxes.(7)
However, a report from right wing group the Tax Payers Alliance recently claimed that families in the UK were already paying an average of £783 in environmental taxation every year.(5) This claim can be disputed. A look at the methodology suggests that it is based on the theory that all extra costs of production will be passed on to the consumer, which is not always the case. Despite this it must be borne in mind that much proposed environmental taxation is regressive (i.e. people would not be taxed according to income – those who earn more pay more – but on a flat rate, such as VAT). For instance extra duty on fuel (a carbon tax) would raise prices for all, adversely effecting those who could least afford to pay such as the old, the unemployed and large families. In Manchester a proposed congestion charge, that would have been charged at a flat rate irrespective of income, was rejected in a referendum.
Conversely it has been suggested that tax breaks could be introduced for environmental alternatives making them more attractive to consumers. There are tax breaks for renewable energy producers such as the renewable energy production tax credit in the USA. The Green Alliance have also suggested replacing VAT with a graduated environmental taxation.(11) This would reduce tax on more environmentally-friendly products. Other options could include a ban on advertising. In 2002 Gillette was spending a massive $394 million on marketing campaigns.(10)
There have been some eco steps forward in the production of disposable razors (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). Recycline now offers the Preserve recycled razor made from recycled oil-based plastic, polyethylene terephthalate (rPET). The heads are detachable but not recyclable, however, the handle is made from recycled plastic and can eventually be recycled.
BIC is the largest company to have tried to seize the eco-mantle. They have recently released a bioplastic disposable razor. Its handle and part of the head is made from Polylactic Acid (PLA) produced from corn. It contains no oil-based additives, is biodegradable and is coloured using “bio-pigments of vegetable origin”. The impact of the packaging has also been reduced: there isn’t much of it, it’s made of 100% recycled bleach-free cardboard and printed with bio-inks. BIC says the shaver has reduced the emissions of CO2 by 16g per unit from the equivalent three-blade shaver made of regular oil-based plastic.
According to ENDS, PLA also compares well to recycled oil-based plastic. If incinerated rPET emits 14% more CO2 over its life than PLA. Based on landfill rPET releases 47% more emissions than PLA over its life cycle.(1) However at the moment it is very difficult to recycle bioplastics. Due to the low volume of bioplastic waste there are few facilities that offer the service. Conventional plastic recyclers are now counting the cost as unknowing consumers dump bioplastic in with their usual plastic recycling. Just one PLA bottle in 1000 PET bottles can render the consignment useless.(1) In the long run it is hoped that bioplastics will be used in the production of power within anerobic digestion. These giant composting units break down organic matter using the gases for energy and the residue for fertiliser.
However, the question arises, if more goods are produced from bioplastic what will be the effect on food markets? Currently, corn dedicated to bioplastic production represents only 0.04% of the worldwide estimated corn production, but as the effects of peak oil are felt, bioplastics are likely to become a more viable option and this could all change. It is already a problem with biofuels which have exacerbated the current food crisis, and on current trajectories would lead to a loss of food-producing land in the future. Lester Brown has estimated that of the 20 million tonnes of increased world grain production in 2006, 14 million tonnes were used to fuel US cars whilst only 6 million contributed to the world’s food supplies.(2) This problem could be combated as manufacturers aim to produce the next generation of bioplastics from non-edible parts of corn, leaf, stem, etc, reducing the effect on food supply. In addition BIC admits that almost all bioplastic suppliers are established in the USA and the product contains GM material.(14)
Some razor sharpening products promise help with this waste problem by sharpening used disposable razor heads. According to manufacturers, a disposable razor could last for up to 130 shaves as opposed to the usual five or six. They usually work by rubbing a dull silicon strip down the length of the blade a few times. The metal of a razor blade is apparently extremely malleable at the edge as it is very thin, so you don’t need a hard material to sharpen it. They are hard to find these days, but we found battery-operated ones at www.clifford-james.co.uk and on the Easy Life website. At the time of writing, they cost £12.99.
A traditional razor may be a more environmentally-friendly option. The double edge razor dates back to the early part of the last century. The only part of the razor that is disposable is the blade. The handle and head can be reused ad infinitum. Used blades are distinctly separate from the head and can be recycled with care at a recycling facility (we wouldn’t recommend leaving them for curbside collection). Some people set up their own blade banks to store blades before being deposited at a recycling centre.
You can purchase a Merkur double edge razor at old style tobacconists or online, while Boots sells its own version and the Wilkinson Sword Classic.
There is also the option of using an old fashioned cut-throat razor, but these can necessitate the use of a leather sharpening strap and creams or shaving gels like other wet shaves. They are not typically available on the high street but can be bought from specialist shops or internet sites. A further option may be to use a barber rather than shave yourself, cutting down on the amount of equipment used. Clearly the most environmental option is not to shave and to trim your hair with scissors.
Getting a buzz out of shaving
Electric razors are another beast altogether. Although they are clearly not disposable they do have other impacts. The ones on the table can be divided into two categories: those that only recharge via the mains and those that use more environmentally-friendly methods.
New on the market since our last report are a solar-powered razor and a wind-up razor. The Sol-Shaver solar-powered shaver, as you would expect, recharges from sunlight rather than the mains. The PowerPlus Piranha wind-up razor recharges by manually turning a handle on the razor (one minute of winding is claimed to give you approximately two minutes shaving). Both are likely to save significant amounts of CO2 over their lifetime compared with plug in re-chargeable versions.
However, like all the re-chargeable shavers they are complicated machines that contain many different components, metals, plastics, batteries etc. It therefore makes it difficult to assess their comparative life cycle impact when compared with bioplastic, recycled disposable razors or double edge razors. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive that took effect in 2008 ensures that those manufacturing electrical items must now offer an end-of-life take back service. This means you can send old electrical goods back to the manufacturers for them to dispose of in a responsible manner, unlike the manufacturers of disposable razors.
Wet shaving also uses water resources and necessitates shaving gels or creams that have an environmental impact. But it would seem that wet shavers obviously have less impact when it comes to energy consumption both from use and in manufacture, though energy consumption of electric shaves is generally low at around 15 w/h.
The Culture of Shaving
Apparently since our early ancestors came down from the trees they removed their hair. Evidence suggest that this may have come from the need to remove lice and improve overall health.(12) Grooming techniques practised by early humans are still visible in other apes. But with lice no longer a major problem and soap in abundance why are we are still obsessed with hairlessness?
Below two members of feminist group AWOL (Angry Women of Liverpool) discuss their shaving habits and how our culture affects them.
"I’m a feminist and I shave my legs. For a long time, I waxed my legs, shaved my armpits, and submitted to the dreaded bikini wax on more or less a regular basis. I enjoyed the feeling of smooth hairlessness, and the accompanying feeling of having skin that belonged, that did not enjoin the rebuke of others, particularly other women. It was a while before I joined in this ritual, but at school, when short skirts were de rigueur, and you could no longer get away with hairy stalks sticking out of your tights, I started to shave. I remember this as being somehow shameful, as though I was supposed to be naturally hairless, and the act of shaving was confession and penance for this sin all in one.
At university, when I had my first proper boyfriend, who did not apparently give a damn whether I was hairy, smooth or covered in scales (an attitude I have found is not uncommon amongst males generally, although you do encounter the odd one with a fetish for hairlessness or, more rarely, extreme hairiness), my attitude to hair removal changed and became the whimsical habit it now is today. Sometimes I am smooth and waxy like a Gillette girl, sometimes coated in downy fur. Sometimes I have bald armpits, with very little scent. Sometimes I have bristles of dark black hair which magnify the peppery, musky smell of my natural body odour. I like the way my body can change in this way, and I like experimenting with different extremes of hairlessness/hairiness, and I no longer do it out of shame or disgust for the way my body is. The feeling of smooth skin is lovely, so inviting to touch, for yourself and for anyone else you might want to touch you, and I think this is the reason many women shave, and the reason why I still do. There is no denying this physical frisson, as tied to the airbrushed images of fake femaleness that are used to sell everything from washing up liquid to tractors as it may be. That frisson is hard to give up entirely, and I’m sure I will continue to experiment with body hair for a while yet, although truthfully I think my hairiest periods often coincide with some of my happiest."
"The last time I removed my leg hair was about two weeks ago. The time before that was about two months previously. Before that, I hadn’t for some months. Summer always gets me – I can spend most of the year barely aware of my legs except as ambulatory devices concealed by trousers, but as soon as the sun shines and I think I might want to bare them, hair becomes an issue.
I usually use a disposable razor. I used to get my own, but I use them so rarely now I can get away with nicking one from my partner’s stash.
I do it to conform to patriarchal expectations of what a woman’s body should be like. When I don’t do it, it’s to thwart patriarchal expectations of what a woman’s body should be like. I switch between these tactics at irregular intervals. Even though no individual man actually expects or demands hairlessness of me, the call of the norm can nevertheless be so strong that my self esteem suffers more for not conforming than for betraying my values. I do it to conform. And I do it because it makes me feel better. Conforming is a very quick and easy way to feel good about yourself. Not conforming is hard work, especially in public or if your job involves working with people who tend to conform. Sometimes we all need a break. The mistake many make is in equating ‘feeling better about yourself’ with being empowered. There’s nothing empowering about needing to painfully pluck the hair out of your sensitive areas before you can feel sexy.
It’s not surprising that conforming to patriarchal expectations of beauty can make us feel better about ourselves when we’ve been bombarded our whole lives with unattainable images of what we’re supposed to be. Getting close to that image has huge rewards within patriarchy (and dangers too).
No feminist has ever condemned women for shaving their body hair – feminists do not condemn women for conforming to patriarchal expectation in a world where not conforming invites punishments from name-calling to stoning and every stage in between – we call this victim-blaming.
Feminists condemn the patriarchal system that has built these expectations and maintains the punishments for deviating from them, not women who don’t risk the public humiliation that comes with challenging those expectations."
Price Comparison table for razors and shavers:
Recycline is a US company that only make goods from recycled materials. They produce toothbrushes and table ware as well as the Preserve recycled razor. Its products are available from UK ethical online stores such as Ethical Superstore.
Procter & Gamble owns a host of consumer brands. These include Gillette and Braun which appear on the table, but also Pampers, Pringles and Vidal Sassoon. It has been criticised by leading animal rights groups for its animal testing. At the moment it is the subject of a boycott call from Uncaged through the Boycott Procter & Gamble website and Hurtful Essences campaign . Procter & Gamble is also a member of four international free trade lobby groups and has operations in 16 oppressive regimes.
Wilkinson Sword is owned by battery company Energizer Holdings. According to Naturewatch the company produces shaving gels that are tested on animals.(15)
DOVO, owners of Merkur, are a specialist razor company based in Germany. They pick up marks in the animal rights category for selling leather products such as sharpening straps for cut-throat razors and leather bags. They also sell shaving brushes made from badger hair.
PowerPlus only produces power-saving products, such as wind-up shavers and lower power light bulbs. It also gives a percentage of its turnover to the PowerPlus Foundation that helps provide mains free (such as wind-up) technology to people who have no access to grid electricity.