The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) last week announced its recognition of a new recyclable toothpaste tube by Colgate–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 company’s Tom’s of Maine brand in the U.S. in 2020. Roll out to select global markets under the Colgate brand will follow. The company plans to fully convert to recyclable tubes by 2025, when all of its products will be in 100% 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 & 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 a popular choice in a varied 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.
“The Association of Plastic Recyclers appreciated the opportunity to partner with Colgate on this important project," said APR President Steve Alexander. "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.”
Development of the recyclable tube
Most toothpaste tubes are made from sheets of plastic laminate – usually a combination of different plastics – often 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.
To make a recyclable tube, Colgate chose high-density polyethylene (HDPE), the widely recycled “No. 2” plastic popular for bottle making. But because HDPE is rigid, it isn’t well suited for ultra-thin laminate sheets and soft, squeezable tubes.
Colgate’s “Eureka” moment came when company packaging engineers working at its Piscataway, NJ, technology campus recognized that they could use more than one grade of HDPE in their designs. 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 Materials Recovery Facilities that sort recyclables. Colgate used Radio Frequency Identification tags to track the tubes and prove they would be properly sorted with plastic bottles. And to demonstrate that the recyclable tube material could be repurposed after recycling – another critical part of gaining APR recognition – the company ground up the tubes to successfully make new plastic bottles.
Building support for recycling the tube
Making a recyclable tube is only part of the challenge. While APR provides guidelines for recyclability in North America, Colgate will need to engage similar organizations in other parts of the world as it expands use of its new tube. It must also build awareness and support among other recycling stakeholders: the Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) that sort recyclables, the reclaimers that produce resin from recycled plastic, the municipalities that operate recycling programs, and others.
The company has help. It is already partnering with several groups, including 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, 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% recyclable packaging,” says Ann Tracy, Vice President 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.”