Colgate develops recyclable toothpaste tubes

Colgate has designed a recyclable toothpaste tube made from squeezeable HDPE. The new design will be used by the company’s Tom’s of Maine brand in the US next year. Rollout to other global markets will then follow as part of Colgate’s plan to convert to recyclable tubes by 2025.

The development has been over five years in the making. Colgate faced a number of challenges – most notably the fact that the majority of toothpaste tubes are made from sheets of plastic laminate (typically a combination of different plastics) sandwiched around a thin layer of aluminium that protects the toothpaste’s flavour and fluoride.

The mix of materials is then pressed together into a single film, making it impossible to recycle through conventional methods.

As a result, Colgate decided to try to make its toothpaste tubes from HDPE. However, because HDPE is rigid, the company found that it wasn’t particularly well suited for ultra-thin laminate sheets and soft, squeezable tubes.

Back at the drawing board, Colgate’s packaging engineers realised 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 consumers to squeeze out all the toothpaste, protects the integrity of the product and meets the demands of high-speed production.

Colgate also conducted tests to show that its toothpaste tube could navigate the screens and conveyor belts at materials recovery facilities that sort recyclables. The company used radio frequency identification tags to track the tubes and prove they would be properly sorted with plastics bottles.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate that the recyclable tube material could be repurposed after recycling, Colgate ground up the tubes to make new plastics bottles.

“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,” said Justin Skala, executive vice president, chief growth and strategy officer for Colgate-Palmolive.

Skala added: “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.”

Toothpaste accounts for an estimated 20 billion plastics tubes annually around the world. “The Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) appreciated the opportunity to partner with Colgate on this important project,” said APR’s president Steve Alexander. “Tubes are one of the most widely used forms of plastics packaging that still cannot be recycled. There is a lot of work ahead, but we believe Colgate is off to a great start.”