Every year, Americans toss a billion tubes of Colgate toothpaste in the trash, and they eventually end up in a landfill. But this year, that could change.
Colgate’s designers have spent more than five years redesigning the brand’s toothpaste tubes so they can be recycled in curbside bins. Starting in March, these new tubes will roll out across four of Colgate’s most popular lines. The company expects every single tube in its portfolio to be recyclable in the United States in 2023, and globally in 2025. But the big question is whether consumers will be able to change their behavior and recycle their old tubes after decades of throwing them in the trash.
Colgate, which was founded in 1873 and currently dominates 34% of the toothpaste market in the United States, helped invent the category of oral care. Founder William Colgate’s first product was a toothpaste sold in glass jars. As the product became increasingly popular over the next century, the company worked to develop more convenient packaging. In the middle of the 20th century, it developed an aluminum tube; and in 1982, it developed the disposable plastic tube that is ubiquitous today. “The tubes were lighter and less expensive than the aluminum ones, and they were less likely to crack,” says Greg Corra, worldwide director of global packaging and sustainability at Colgate-Palmolive, Colgate’s parent company.
Colgate’s plastic tubes are made from a range of materials. They contain a thin layer of aluminum that keeps the toothpaste fresh and flavorful, and several different types of plastic. Most municipal recycling programs can’t recycle products made from mixed materials. “The design was focused on functionality rather than what would happen to the tube at the end of its life,” Corra says.
But in recent years, consumers have become increasingly aware that plastic pollution is destroying our planet. Since plastic was popularized in the early 1950s, 8.3 billion tonnes of it have been produced. Today, we generate 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. Only 9% of all plastic is recycled, while 12% is incinerated, a process that spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The vast majority of this waste—79%—ends up in landfills or the natural environment. Since plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it simply disintegrates into small fragments called microplastics, which can end up in our oceans, poisoning animals and humans.
For Corra and his team, it was abundantly clear that Colgate needed to redesign its tubes. Corra says the key was using a single material so they could be easily recycled. The company went with high-density polyethylene, which is commonly used to make detergent bottles, milk jugs, and vitamin bottles. Initially, the problem was that most HDPE is rigid, making it hard to squeeze toothpaste out. “The breakthrough came when we realized we could layer different grades of HDPE on top of each other, which allowed us to create a tube that was more squeezable,” Corra says, explaining that they even replaced the aluminum barrier with a plastic that’s compatible with HDPE recycling (the new tube is classified as #2 plastic). “The secret sauce was mixing and matching different grades of the same material, so it would still be recyclable.”
The cap, however, is made from a polypropelyene (or #5 plastic). In most cases, customers will be able to throw the tube and the cap into the recycling bin. But local recycling rules sometimes vary, and some recyclers prefer that consumers remove the cap before placing both the tube and the cap in the bin. Corra says there will inevitably be toothpaste residue left in the tube, but consumers don’t need to bother cleaning it out before recycling; since toothpaste is water soluble, it will get washed out during the cleaning process at the recycling plant.
Over the next year, Colgate will be rolling out these tubes slowly as it works with its factories and retailers to bring the tubes to market. The new packaging will debut in its Cavity Protection, Max Fresh Cool, Total Whitening, and Optic White lines—and will have artwork that says “Recycle Me!” to alert consumers to the new recyclability.
In the interim, the rest of Colgate’s toothpaste lines won’t be recyclable—nor will other brands on the market. Colgate realizes this patchwork approach isn’t ideal. But its ultimate goal is to make recyclable plastic tubes the norm. In 2020, when it first launched a prototype of the tube for Tom’s of Maine, the natural brand and an independent subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive, it submitted the tube to the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade organization that helps create standards for the industry. (Only some of Tom’s toothpaste tubes are currently recyclable.) Once the tube was approved, Colgate made its design open-source so that other brands could adopt it. Corra says Colgate worked with its third-party factories to manufacture this new tube; other brands that rely on the same suppliers will be able to easily switch to the new design.
Even while launching a recyclable tube, Corra is aware that it’s not the only solution to the environmental crisis. Some activists argue that it’s better to eradicate plastic from products altogether, since there’s no guarantee consumers will recycle it (and, even if they do, some recyclers end up sending plastic to landfills, anyway). Corra’s team is continuing to explore sustainable new materials, such as compostable packaging, and creating refillable containers. “Our strategy is pretty broad,” Corra says. “We’ve got 9 million tubes around the world to worry about right now, so we had to do something now, but we are looking into next-generation materials. We’ve got several irons in the fire.”