Dear Dot: Should I Accept Free Samples from Department Stores?



Dear Dot,

I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to those free samples that are given out in department stores. Mostly tiny perfumes (lots and lots of perfumes). Then I end up giving a lot of them away. What’s the impact of all those samples? Should I give up my addiction?

–Beth, Manhattan, NY

Dear Beth,

The Short Answer: Sample size products are hugely harmful to our environment, from production through disposal. Most of these little containers aren’t recyclable. But, if trying a sample helps you avoid purchasing a full-size product that you wouldn’t end up using, then … go for it. Otherwise, go big or go home. 

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I am a lover of all things tiny. As a young Dot, I desperately wanted to live in my dollhouse, a metal, 1940s-era three-bedroom, center-hall fixer-upper with painted-on carpets and fireplaces. I loved the tiny beds and dressers and dining table, the tiny people, the even tinier food. 

Which is to say, I completely understand your delight in tiny samples of perfume. I am similarly seduced by sample-sized shampoos and lotions, mini deodorants, and, my faves, itty-bitty lipsticks better suited to dolls. 

The industry has taken notice of our enthusiasm. Witness the advent calendar craze, positioning pint-sized personal care products behind 24 tiny cardboard doors. Or the subscription box mania, delivering often pint-sized products that we may or may not actually want or use straight to our post boxes. 

I rooted around to find some data on the amount of resources used for small items vs. large because somehow numbers make concepts real, even though we both already know, don’t we, Beth? We know that those adorably mini items require more resources, ultimately, than the same products in larger quantities/containers. Nonetheless, let’s break it down. 

While these figures come from the United Kingdom, they are relevant to North America: The beauty site Refinery 29 tells us that, in the UK alone, consumers purchase 100 million sample-sized items every year. “Purchase.” So this number doesn’t include the number of minis given away as promos. The population in the UK is closing in on 69 million, while the US population is close to five times that. All of which — let me pull out my calculator here, Beth — all of which equals a huge … bloody hell!, as the Brits say.

And what’s going to happen to all those cute containers? Lizzie Horvitz, friend of Bluedot and founder of Choose Finch, tells me that sample sizes are “nearly impossible to recycle.” Recycling, as regular readers know, is something of a bee in Dot’s bonnet. It has become the breakout star of the 3 Rs, while actually being the R that should be relegated to the sidelines until all other options are exhausted. It’s reduce, reuse, recycle in that order, I repeat, like some sort of malfunctioning eco-robot.

In any case, most of these little containers aren’t recyclable. Items less than two inches typically aren’t recognized by sorting machines and end up getting spit out for landfill or, worse, contaminating entire batches of legit recyclables. And even full-size personal care products often include pumps, droppers, lids, or other parts that aren’t recyclable or easily disengaged from their containers. And finally, even with our best intentions, we aren’t even recycling one-tenth of the plastics that are recyclable. Bloody hell! again, to reuse (not recycle!) that multipurpose British phrase.

Choose Finch’s Lizzie Horvitz does throw us lovers of minis a wee bone, Beth. “The one case where samples make sense,” she says, “is if you don’t sample, you would buy a large product that you end up not using to its fullest potential.” What this means is that we have Lizzie’s carefully qualified permission to judiciously enjoy samples when we are legitimately on the fence about whether or not to buy a full-sized version of the product. Otherwise, Lizzie says, “we try to discourage people from using samples, as they’re really energy-intensive to create and usually have no chance at a second life.”

To eliminate minis, Beth, we also suggest that you: 

  • Stay at hotels that have full-size pump products in the bathrooms and showers. And don’t cram your carryon with unused minis from the hotels to take back home! I don’t care if you think you paid for them. Our planet is paying with its future. 
  • Purchase from cosmetic and personal care product companies that are introducing reusable containers or that have robust take-back programs for recycling. Search company websites for info on recycling programs; some will even reward you for trading in empties. Or, let TerraCycle take care of it.
  • Buy reusable travel-sized containers (or hang on to travel-sized containers from products you already have) and refill with liquids from home. Or stick to solids for travel: shampoo, soap, conditioner — all can be found in bar form. 
  • Follow our letter writer’s lead and don’t just throw away the minis you already have. Fill Christmas stockings with them, or offer them up on your local Facebook Buy Nothing group. (And feel free to inform the giftees on why they should try to avoid samples, too.)
  • Finally, resist the siren call of samples. Instead, stick to products that you know you love, buy them in the biggest containers you can, and then recycle (or outsource that recycling) appropriately.



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