Colgate designs recyclable toothpaste tube
Colgate used HDPE to construct its recyclable toothpaste tube.

Colgate designs recyclable toothpaste tube

APR has recognized the tube through its Design for Recycling program.

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New York-based Colgate-Palmolive says it has finalized the design of a first-of-its-kind recyclable toothpaste tube, saying the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), Washington, announced its recognition of the new tube last week. In a news release announcing the innovation, Colgate says this recognition is “an essential step in bringing it to the public.” The Colgate design is the first oral care or personal care tube to earn APR recognition for recyclability.

Under development for more than five years, the tube will debut under the Colgate’s Tom’s of Maine brand in the U.S. in 2020. Rollout to select global markets under the Colgate brand will follow, the company says, adding that it plans to fully convert to recyclable tubes by 2025, when all of its products will be in 100 percent recyclable packaging.

“Building a future to smile about means finding new packaging solutions that are better for the planet, but until now there hasn’t been a way to make toothpaste tubes part of the recycling stream,” says Justin Skala, executive vice president, chief growth and strategy officer for Colgate-Palmolive. “Once we’ve proven the new tube with consumers, we intend to offer the technology to the makers of plastic tubes for all kinds of products. By encouraging others to use this technology, we can have an even bigger impact and increase the long-term market viability of this solution.”

Plastic tubes are used to package a range of product categories from cosmetics and personal care products to pharmaceuticals and food. Toothpaste alone accounts for an estimated 20 billion tubes annually around the world, Colgate says.

APR President Steve Alexander says, “The Association of Plastic Recyclers appreciated the opportunity to partner with Colgate on this important project. Tubes are one of the most widely used forms of plastic packaging that still cannot be recycled. There is a lot of work ahead, but we believe Colgate is off to a great start.”

Most toothpaste tubes are made from sheets of plastic laminate that can be a combination of different plastics. The sheets often are sandwiched around a thin layer of aluminum that protects the toothpaste’s flavor and fluoride. The mix of materials is pressed together into a single film, making it impossible to recycle through conventional methods, Colgate explains.

To make the recyclable tube, Colgate used high-density polyethylene (HDPE). But because HDPE is rigid, it isn’t well-suited for ultra-thin laminate sheets and soft, squeezable tubes. The company’s packaging engineers working at its Piscataway, New Jersey, technology campus recognized that they could use more than one grade of HDPE in their designs, however, the company says. The team then tested a dozen different combinations—using from six to 20 layers—to find the recipe that allows people to comfortably squeeze out all the toothpaste, protects the integrity of the product and meets the demands of high-speed production.

To achieve APR recognition, Colgate also conducted tests to show that its toothpaste tube could navigate the screens and conveyor belts at the critically important material recovery facilities (MRFs) that sort recyclables. Colgate says it used radio frequency Identification (RFID) tags to track the tubes and prove they would be properly sorted with plastic bottles.

Finally, to demonstrate that the recyclable tube material could be repurposed after recycling, the company ground up the tubes to make new plastic bottles.

While APR provides guidelines for recyclability in North America, Colgate says it will need to engage similar organizations in other parts of the world as it expands use of its new tube. The company also must build awareness and support among other recycling stakeholders, including MRFs, reclaimers that produce resin from recycled plastic and the municipalities that operate recycling programs. To that end, Colgate has partnered with several groups, including Sonoma, California-based More Recycling, a data and technology firm that works with companies and others to navigate the recycling infrastructure and support sustainable choices, and The Recycling Partnership, Falls Church, Virginia, which provides grants, technical assistance and communication support to states, cities and communities to help residents recycle more and recycle better.

“Colgate people are excited about this challenge and meeting our goal of 100 percent recyclable packaging,” says Ann Tracy, vice president of global sustainability, EOHS and supply chain strategy. “We’re committed to using less plastic—and more recycled material—in our packaging. We’re helping to strengthen recycling by supporting the Closed Loop Fund and other efforts. And we’re exploring new ingredients and models, including TerraCycle’s Loop initiative for reusable, refillable packaging.”