The first recyclable toothpaste tube is much more impressive than it sounds

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When we think of innovative technology, toothpaste usually isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe that should change. Lindsay McCormack, CEO and founder of Bite toothpaste bits, has reformulated tooth paste into a tablet. Because these come in glass containers, nothing need ever hit the landfill. For this reason, I personally hope toothpaste tabs kick Proctor and Gamble to the curb, however realizing that people’s habits change slowly; Colgate has announced they will soon release a recyclable toothpaste tube under their Toms of Maine brand. While this may not seem all that exciting, Colgate has taken several additional steps that warrant the term good environmental stewardship.

First, you might be asking yourself, “why aren’t toothpaste tubes currently recyclable?”. The problem is that they are a composite of materials. To make them durable, easy to squeeze, and resistant to contaminants, several thin layers of soft plastics and an ultra thin inner layer of aluminum are laminated together. On their own, these soft plastics are not typically recycled. Together, these composite tubes are rarely recycled.

Colgate has spent the last several years coming up with a replacement for this bad combination. The new recyclable tubes will be made entirely out of high density polyethylene (HDPE), which out of the many different types of plastic manufactured today, is the one most likely to actually get recycled. (see Footnote)

Photo credit: Tom’s of Maine

For many companies, efforts might end with the development of a recyclable, single-use container for their product. Whether it actually gets recycled, or ends up in a landfill or the ocean, isn’t always considered. And here is where Colgate goes the extra mile. To ensure that automated material sorters at recycling centers would be able to correctly identify the new tubes, Colgate inserted tracking chips into the tubes and put them through test runs on conveyor belts at actual material reclamation centers to make sure the new tubes would be recognized as recyclable, earning them recognition by the Association of Plastic Recyclers. Perhaps even more impressive, after spending several years developing the recyclable toothpaste tube, Colgate has announced they will make the recyclable tube design freely available for use by any of their competitors.

So, the practice of brushing ones teeth may soon become more sustainable, yet the best option would be to do away with single-use plastic containers all together. (For some perspective on the plastic problem, see the UN report here). Recycling requires additional energy and resource consumption over reuse. Couldn’t we simply have a refillable toothpaste container? Well, maybe. Colgate and many other companies are beginning to offer some of their products in refillable packaging, through partnerships with companies, such as Loop, which offers their products in refillable containers which can be returned to the company to be cleaned and refilled indefinitely. However, traditional, name brand toothpaste has yet to be made available in a refillable format.

Footnote: According to the EPA’s most recent estimates, less than 9% of all plastics actually end up being recycled into new items. However, the rate for HPDE recycling is over 31%.