Column: Colgate-Palmolive Competes on Toothpaste, not Tube

Colgate-Palmolive’s breakthrough toothpaste tube, on pace to be fully rolled out by 2025, is certified as recyclable by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR).

Toothpaste Colgate Copy

Colgate-Palmolive’s breakthrough toothpaste tube, on pace to be fully rolled out by 2025, is certified as recyclable by the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). Its designers cleverly eliminated aluminum foil as the barrier layer in favor of a thin layer of EVOH that’s included in the multilayer LDPE body. By doing so, they made the tube welcome at Municipal Recycling Facilities, where tubes containing foil layers have always been a problem. Also important, they sacrificed neither barrier properties nor the familiar hand feel that consumers know and expect. And maybe most important from a recycling standpoint is that the multi-layer material works satisfactorily in the #2 curbside recycling stream because once it’s ground up, its materials match the HDPE stream. Visit this link for more on that.

Making it even more interesting is that Colgate intends to share it across the industry.

“From day one, this was never about Colgate having a recyclable tube. It was about the industry having a recyclable tube,” said Tom Heaslip, Worldwide Director, Global Packaging, Colgate-Palmolive Co., during our December conversation. “If Colgate did it alone, it wasn’t going to move the needle with regard to tubes getting recycled.”

Of course, patents on Colgate’s recyclable toothpaste tube material are pending. But the notion that the HDPE recycle stream was likely the most fruitful route to this achievement has been known to the industry since the #2 stream existed. Protecting an open secret would have been counterproductive, especially if industry-wide adoption was a goal. Colgate-Palmolive instead has been actively engaging with suppliers, taking a leadership role of coaching and coaxing converters and materials vendors towards the HDPE stream.

How industry-wide partnership will look in reality is still vague. Colgate doesn’t plan on licensing the tube, so that might imply addressing the significant research burden Colgate has shouldered in development by “signing contracts and revenue streams.”

But in the face of today’s single-use plastic packaging panic, CPGs already share a strong sense that they’re all in this together. There’s a largely pre-competitive effort and collaboration around solving the plastic waste problem that stems from the APR, the Consumer Goods Forum, The Sustainable Packaging Coalition, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This solidarity provides a platform, an ongoing conversation, and a clearinghouse of technologies, strategies, and ways forward.

“Our feeling has always been that if we’re going to compete as companies, we should compete with what’s inside the tube, but not the tube itself,” Heaslip says. “Because we’re losing a lot of the greater good if we start locking people out from using this technology.”

Also, the technology ultimately is one that will be manufactured by packaging suppliers, not the brand owners and CPGs that compete with Colgate. With this in mind, Heaslip broke the news at a North American Tube Council meeting a year ago. Notably, this was before the product was finalized; from a competitive standpoint, it was still dangerously in its validation stages when the cat left the bag.

“It got resonance pretty quickly,” Heaslip says. “Within the next two to three months, we probably had three or four people call us and ask to speak in more detail about what we were doing. And that’s really where we started opening up those conversations.”

The difficulty with this or any recyclability breakthrough is the headwinds faced by recycling. Americans recycle at a depressingly low rate. And the recycling infrastructure in the U.S. is struggling to maintain the requisite market push and pull for profitability. That’s why Colgate is proceeding at a carefully measured pace to continue to build consensus and momentum around its tube among brand owners and suppliers, without scaring away a hopeful but still skeptical infrastructure. Heaslip is actively engaging the MRFs to demonstrate the new tube will sort properly. It’s a difficult pace to maintain, but Heaslip feels like he’s making a difference in a way he hadn’t previously in his 35-year career.

“With the lightening rod that plastic has become, we’re demonstrating that business can cause positive change,” he says. “We looked at a really imposing challenge and didn’t know if we would ever get there. Every step along the way for the past five years, one-by-one we knocked these things off, and suddenly we’re seeing that what were previously viewed as insurmountable tasks can now be tackled. And what we’re tackling is important. We really believe that this is a very important step toward getting to a circular economy.”

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