Of the hundreds of thousands of tubes of toothpaste sold in the U.S. each year, most end up in landfills. The tubes, which are usually made of a mix of materials including aluminum, aren’t accepted at typical recycling facilities. Colgate spent the last five years designing a new type of tube that can change that.
The company, like many other consumer packaged goods giants, has committed to moving to packaging that’s fully recyclable, reusable, or compostable by 2025. It recognized the scale of its own challenge. “We feel like with our level of penetration, in over half the households in the world, we have a responsibility to participate in reducing plastic issues around the world,” says Ann Tracy, vice president of safety, global sustainability, and supply chain strategy at Colgate-Palmolive. Colgate is also part of Loop, a group of major brands experimenting with new reusable packaging; toothpaste, for example, could potentially be replaced with alternatives like chewable tablets that can be sold in a reusable tin rather than plastic.
Finding a new design for a classic toothpaste tube was difficult. Existing tubes are optimized to preserve flavor and key ingredients like fluoride, and that couldn’t change. It had to be something that consumers would want to use. And crucially, it needed to easily fit into current recycling streams. “We identified the stream that recycles milk bottles—high-density polyethylene—because it most closely matched existing technologies, although there was still five years’ worth of development to evolve the materials in the right way,” says Tom Heaslip, Colgate’s worldwide director of global packaging.
A basic package made out of high-density polyethylene wouldn’t be easy to squeeze, and would be difficult to use in the ultra-fine sheets that are used to assemble them. But by experimenting with multiple layers of the material in different grades, the engineers were able to find a design that worked. They tested the new tubes at recycling facilities to ensure that they would be sorted correctly, and then tested grinding up the packaging to fully recycle it into a new plastic bottle. (A little residue from toothpaste isn’t a problem, Tracy says, and can actually help clean materials.) Consumers liked the design in tests. The new package is also compatible with the company’s very high-speed equipment for making sheets of plastic and forming tubes, so it can be easily mass-produced. “We didn’t want a specialty tube,” says Heaslip. “We needed one that matched existing capability as best as possible to make it affordable to convert the entire business.”
The company plans to roll out the tubes first in its U.S. sales of its Toms of Maine brand, followed by some global markets. By 2025, it plans to use the tubes in all of its toothpaste. The first challenge involves changing its manufacturing equipment to handle the new design. The next challenge will be teaching both recycling plants and consumers that toothpaste tubes can go in recycling bins. “It’s not a technical issue,” says Tracy. “It’s more around communication.”