Meet the Eco-Entrepreneur Fighting to Eliminate Single-Use Personal Care Products

LastObject co-founder Isabel Aagaard is improving the planet one cotton swab, tissue, and makeup round at a time.

Photo: LastObject / Courtesy of Isabel Aagaard

Eco-conscious at heart, Isabel Aagaard has always looked for small ways she could reduce her impact on the planet. She's long carried her reusable cup to coffee shops and turned down the paper ones, sipped from a glass straw instead of a plastic one, and re-fashioned jam jars into drinkware.

But Aagaard's ethos didn't really align with her career designing medical equipment in Denmark, nor did it have the meaningful, worldwide impact she aspired for, she says. So two and a half years ago, Aagaard and the two furniture designers she shared an office space with set out to find a way to do just that — and they soon found themselves knee-deep in research on the massive environmental impact of the single-use product industry.

"I had a lot of single-use items in my day-to-day life and suddenly I realized the impact that daily habits have," says Aagaard. "It's quite crazy that you're getting something produced, shipped, and packaged, and then you buy it, use it for a second, and then you throw it out. It actually seems really, really weird."

One of the largest environmental offenders: The roughly 1.5 billion cotton swabs that are produced daily, particularly the plastic-stemmed ones that take hundreds of years to break down and, when flushed down the toilet, can end up in waterways and threaten marine life. In the U.K. alone, an estimated 180 million of these swabs go down the drain each year.

These alarming stats led the designers to found LastObject, a company with a mission to create reusable, eco-friendly alternatives to single-use personal care items that leave lasting effects on the environment. After roughly seven months of development, material tests, and design tweaks, the company dropped its first product on Kickstarter: The LastSwab (Buy It, $12, lastobject.com), a reusable "cotton" swab made with a durable TPE (a material that has properties of rubber and plastic) stick and soft, rubbery ends. Unlike its disposable counterpart, the LastSwab can be cleaned with soap and water or rubbing alcohol, withstands up to 1,000 uses, and comes in a travel case crafted from discarded plastic that was bound for the ocean to keep it debris-free. (Related: 10 Beauty Buys On Amazon That Help Reduce Waste)

LastObject's LastSwab
LastObject

Despite the good intentions and groundbreaking design, the initial response to the LastSwab wasn't overwhelmingly positive. "It was kind of 50-50 on Facebook if people were like, 'oh my God, this is so innovative and awesome and I want one,' or 'that is disgusting — I would never reuse a cotton swab,'" Aagaard recalls. "But I think it gave us a lot of reach because people shared it for the 'ew' factor as well as the 'wow' factor."

As Samantha Jones says in Sex and the City, there's no such thing as bad publicity. The product racked up nearly 20,000 financial backers by the end of the four-month-long Kickstarter campaign, and roughly 4,800 of the company's email subscribers bought the LastSwab when it first became available, says Aagaard. "Our dream was always to go into [all types of] single-use items, but because we had such a big hit with the first one, we could see that this didn't have to take 10 years — this could actually take a few years to build all the products that we wanted to create," she says.

On the heels of that first successful launch, LastObject released the LastTissue (Buy It, $24, lastobject.com), a reusable tissue pack that Aagaard describes as "a packet of tissues that had a baby with a handkerchief." ICYDK, traditional tissues are primarily made from wood pulp, which requires an energy- and water-intensive production process and contributes to the logging of forests that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to the National Resource Defense Council. Each of the six tissues in LastTissue, however, is created entirely from Global Organic Textile Standard-certified organic cotton, which uses up to 91 percent less water and 62 percent less energy than conventionally grown cotton, and can be cleaned in the washing machine up to 460 times. Do a little math wizardry, and that means one LastTissue pack saves 2,760 wood pulp tissues (or about 18.5 boxes of Kleenex) from being created and used.

LastObject's LastTissue
LastObject

Just last fall, the company also launched LastRound (Buy It, $14, lastobject.com), washable makeup pads made from Scandinavian wood fiber (70 percent) that's sourced from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and cotton fiber (30 percent) that's too short to be used in the textile industry and would otherwise go to waste, says Aagaard. Each pack of seven pads can be run through the washing machine, used up to 1,750 times, and composted when they're worn down. And although the rounds feel a little rough when they're dry, they become softer than the OG, disposable version after you run them under water. "With all our products, we wanted to resemble the single-use alternative because people can't change too many habits, and they can't change the feel of the element too much," explains Aagaard. "It's enough that they have to wash it, so you really need to have the same feel as the single-use version." (Related: Swap Your Throwaway Makeup Remover Pads with This Sustainable Alternative)

But using materials that are less taxing to produce and less damaging to dispose of is only part of the equation in creating an all-around sustainable product. "The way that you can make something really good for the environment is by making it really good quality so that it doesn't break and can be used for a long time," explains Aagaard. "Our first focus is really to make it well-designed, well-produced, and at a price point that we can meet everybody at." Of course, to truly walk the walk, the entire process — including creating the materials, shipping them all over the globe, and actually producing the products — has to be green as well. Each LastObject product needs to have a 10 percent lower impact on the environment — in terms of CO2 emissions, water and energy use, and toxin creation — than its single-use counterpart, she says. "When you look at producing single-use cotton swabs, we compete miles above that," she adds. "You can get a Q-Tip made from paper and cotton wood, and all of those more sustainable solutions are still not better than ours."

LastObject Products, including the LastRound, LastSwab, and LastTissue
LastObject

So far, this attention to detail has had a huge payoff. The company is close to selling its one millionth LastSwab, and customers are still using the same products two years after they were first purchased, says Aagaard. "I think everybody is so aware of what's happening in the world right now, and people are actually really willing to go the mile and to make a little bit of a difference," she says. (BTW, making a few changes to your diet can reduce your environmental impact, too.)

And Aagaard and her co-founders are only getting started. Moving forward, the team is planning to add more reusable products to their line and to continue improving on existing ones as new high-quality materials with lower environmental footprints become available, she says. But Aagaard's long-term goal is for LastObject to disrupt the entire process of buying personal care items, whether it be tissues, cotton swabs, or even menstrual products. "I think my biggest dream would be that someday our company is so big that you would go down to Whole Foods, go to that aisle with single-use items, and as you're grabbing for something, [you stop and ask yourself], did LastObject do something that's reusable?'" she says. "You don't think in single-use. You think, 'does it have a reusable alternative?' If we get to that point, that would be mind blowing."

FTR, Aagaard isn't calling on everyone to ditch all their not-so-green habits and upend their lifestyles to go zero-waste. Instead, she wants everyone to do their part — no matter how big or small — in improving the environment. "I just want to be one voice [encouraging people] to take one thing at a time" she says. "I've been on this journey for quite a few years now, and I'm not perfect — I'm not zero-waste, but I'm less-waste. If we all just do a little bit, then that makes a huge difference and we don't need the few people to do everything."

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