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Colgate Breaks Down Its New Recyclable Toothpaste Tube

by Rudy Sanchez on 03/03/2022 | 4 Minute Read

For all the differences across humanity, we at least have a few commonalities. 

Like brushing our teeth. 

All of us need to take a brush and some paste to our fancy mouth bones, and billions do every day, twice a day, for two minutes at a time. While this ritual is crucial to dental hygiene and health, it has the unfortunate consequence of producing a lot of plastic waste in the form of non-recyclable tubes.

Market leader Colgate recognizes the waste created by our need to care for our teeth. According to Greg Corra, worldwide director of global packaging & sustainability for Colgate, toothpaste brands produce 20 billion toothpaste tubes globally. Corra reckons that somewhere between 9-10 billion belong to them. 

That is why Colgate has been hard at work developing more sustainable solutions to a vital product to our wellbeing. The latest innovation is a recyclable toothpaste tube. While still made from plastic, it marks an iterative step forward by a market leader in dental hygiene.

Colgate set to work on a recyclable toothpaste tube that can be put into production quickly and at scale. The innovative packaging gets made using high-density polyethylene, or #2 HDPE, a material widely accepted by curbside recycling programs. HDPE is typically rigid, but Colgate developed a way to give HDPE tubes the pliability of conventional, multi-material toothpaste packaging.

“One of the challenges is how do you make a squeeze tube out of a very rigid material, which isn't inherently really squeezy. We cracked that by layering different specifications of material. It's the same material, but different grades,” Corra said. “Some of which adds rigidity, and some of which adds softness.” According to Corra, making a laminate out of varying grades of HDPE was a breakthrough. From there, Colgate figured out how to make the tubes flat and easy to print upon and do it consistently and quickly, 9 billion times over.

“Another big breakthrough was partnering early on with the recycling industry. We started with the Association of Plastic Recyclers and got people on technical committees sitting through meetings. Working hand in hand, we came up with a tube going into the bottle stream that can be a valuable feedstock,” Corra added.

Editorial photograph

Greg explained Colgate explored all sorts of options, with most unable to help Colgate reach its target of 100% recyclable tubes by 2025. In some cases, such as Colgate’s Elixir, the packaging is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) plastic, commonly used to make plastic water bottles and highly recyclable. But, as Corra explained, PETE recyclable tubes didn’t meet the other critical requirements, and they wouldn't have been able to scale up production of the PETE packaging to 9 billion tubes annually by 2025 without significantly replacing their manufacturing asset base. The HDPE tubes required only some changes to the assembly line. 

Colgate is not only transitioning to 100% recyclable tubes for its products, but they also want to help other brands create their own recyclable packaging, sharing its design at no cost.

“We've opened it up to anybody. We're not licensing it for money at all, and it's royalty-free,” Corra said. “We have a patent on the technology, which is defensive, and we've worked with the material suppliers to develop specifications also to be able to supply to others as well.”

As innovative and recyclable as Colgate’s tubes are, consumers still need actually to recycle them. Otherwise, the packaging will likely head straight for a landfill, negating all that hard work. The new packaging will also carry a new, oversized “Recycle Me” label in the form of a familiar chasing arrow triangle icon.

Editorial photograph

“A lot of people have their recycling bins in the kitchen, not in the bathroom. So part of our rollout was figuring out how we activate a behavior change of putting these #2 tubes into the recycling bin. How do we communicate that? We also need to let people know that it's different from where they are today,” Corra explained. “That’s how we came up with the ‘Recycle Me.’ We need to scream it from the hilltop for a period, you know, and then we'll move to maybe something more subtle is in the corner. But bringing this to the front is a way to alert both shoppers and remind consumers after they’re done brushing their teeth.”

Finally, Corra notes that while the tube and cap are different materials, consumers should recycle them together unless specifically told otherwise by their curbside service. It also makes it less likely for the cap to end up as litter.

“You don't need to separate the cap from the tube. The cap is made out of polypropylene, which is the same material as a milk jug cap, so it's compatible,” Corra explained. “We will convert the cap to HDPE at some point since it makes it more valuable to recyclers, and it makes it less yield loss. So it's still recyclable; you put it in the bin with the cap on.”

You may have gotten all the way here and still be asking, “Why bother investing in a new kind of plastic packaging, even if it’s recyclable?” Especially since, as we know, many consumers can’t be bothered to recycle plastic anyway.

“Circularity and scale were very important as we embarked on this project,” Corra said. “Several years ago, toothpaste tubes just flat out weren't recyclable. We knew we wanted to do this around the world for all 9 billion of our tubes. That's what led us to high-density polyethylene. That doesn't mean we're ruling out other routes or materials, plastic and non-plastic."

For Colgate, making a recyclable toothpaste tube out of HDPE became a solution that met the firm’s current sustainability goals best. And Colgate does have a non-plastic option in the form of toothpaste tablets packaged in glass jars.

Consumers in the US can expect to see the new recyclable Colgate packaging in retailers starting this month. Just don’t forget to toss the tube into the recycling bin with the lid attached.

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