Photos courtesy of Colgate-Palmolive

“Our ultimate goal here is to convert the tube industry,” says Tom Heaslip, worldwide director of global packaging at Colgate-Palmolive, headquartered in New York City. Colgate is the first company to successfully design a recyclable toothpaste tube. The tube has gained Critical Guidance Recognition from the Washington-based Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR), making it the first oral and personal care tube to earn this APR recognition.

Colgate used APR’s high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottle-to-bottle protocol to evaluate the effects of adding a new item to the HDPE bottle recycling stream. Although meeting the bottle-to-bottle protocol was not mandatory to receive the recognition, it provided additional data and displayed Colgate’s confidence that the tube would perform well in the recycling stream, says John Standish, APR technical director.

“This is a groundbreaking activity,” says Steve Alexander, president of the APR. “This is a seminal event in potentially [creating] recyclable tubes across the spectrum. [Colgate is] taking historically nonrecyclable packaging types and setting a standard for others to follow.”

Colgate spent five years redesigning the tube, and now it can be recovered through municipal recycling programs.

Building a better tube

Although traditional toothpaste tubes are made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a recyclable plastic, Heaslip says it is nearly impossible to recycle them because an aluminum layer is present. “The layer that is a problem is an aluminum foil core to the laminate that is then surrounded by plastic materials. The combination of the aluminum and the plastic render this nonrecyclable under any normal streams of recycling.”

Designing a recyclable toothpaste tube is not as straightforward as removing the aluminum layer and creating a tube made completely from plastic. Heaslip says all-plastic tubes already exist, but Colgate needed to create tubes that could be recycled within existing recycling streams.

“All-plastic tubes do exist in the market today,” he says. “It’s the challenge of using plastic resins that are compatible with existing recycle streams.”

In the U.S., Heaslip says, that means using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or HDPE.

“We did try PET tubes in the past, but they are not very tube-like; it ends up being more like a very thin bottle than an actual tube,” Heaslip adds. “That is why we settled on HDPE, because it is more naturally made into a tube. The characteristics of the HDPE stream are much more friendly toward performance attributes like consumer hand feel.”

Using LDPE to make tubes ensures the tube is soft and pliable; Colgate was looking for an alternative material that would be able to retain these positive attributes.

Because HDPE normally is not compatible with Colgate’s performance standards, Heaslip says the company experimented with different formulas before finding one that provided the necessary elements for consumers to use the product comfortably and for the tube to be recycled successfully.

“The trick was getting the right recipe of resins in order to end up in a structure that felt like a normal toothpaste tube,” Heaslip says. “The first tube we are putting out is nine layers. We are already working on the second generation, which will be 13 layers. As we optimize, we will probably stick between a seven-to-13-layer range. The initial launch will be with a nine-layer laminate.”

Changing the number of layers of HDPE affects the level of protection for the product, the performance of the tube-making and tube-filling equipment and the aggregated resin specifications, which was the basis for the APR recognition.

“Using more layers allows for a greater level of fine-tuning toward optimal performance against our specifications,” Heaslip says.

Although Colgate switched from LDPE to HDPE, he guarantees the product will be just as functional. “When it comes to performance attributes of the tubes, we maintained all of our existing test standards. That was a goal and a priority from the beginning. We did not want to see any negative trend, whether that was in physical performance or consumer reaction to it.”

Tracking results

Outside of choosing which resin should be used to create the tubes, Colgate took several other steps to achieve the recyclability standard. Colgate worked with the APR and followed its Design Guide.

“There were several partners that we were actively involved with,” Heaslip says. “First and foremost, the APR, making sure that we fully understood and met all their guidance. Without their partnership and guidance on this, it would have been very difficult to do on our own.”

Alexander explains APR’s role in helping Colgate achieve its recyclable tube. “It is the same role we play for the industry as a whole. If companies are serious about making their packaging recyclable, the APR Design Guide is really the industry standard. If you want your packaging to be recyclable, that is the document you need. We play that role for many companies.”

Photos courtesy of Colgate-Palmolive

Colgate worked with the APR for five years to attain its goal. “What [the Design Guide] has allowed Colgate to do over the years, because this was a five-year effort on their part, was give them a benchmark upon which to refer as they developed the package. If they were trying to develop a package so it is recyclable, they would do some work on it and then refer back to the guide,” Alexander says.

Standish says the five years it took Colgate to achieve its goal of a recyclable toothpaste tube was “not unusually long.” He explains, “Technical innovation can be challenging and complex. A consumer packaging product has to meet many demanding criteria to satisfy 100 percent of the technical and consumer requirements.”

To track the tubes throughout the sorting process, Colgate used radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. This allowed the company to know if the tubes got sorted properly at material recovery facilities (MRFs). The tagged tubes were tested at three MRFs in North America. “We tested our two main sizes of our tubes via the APR Size Sortability Protocol. [The tubes] were deemed ‘Preferred,’ requiring a rate at 90 percent or above,” says Anne Bedarf, packaging sustainability manager at Colgate.

“When optically sorted, our tubes were sorted and baled successfully with colored HDPE,” Bedarf continues. “We saw the same with manual sorting systems but also learned that some sorters removed the tubes thinking they were a contaminant. We recognize the need for widespread education and partnership with MRFs and their recycling supply chains, and we are partnering with several organizations to address that need.”

Following the sorting tests, the tubes were reprocessed at an APR-approved lab. “The tubes were reprocessed at up to a 50 percent level—50 percent tube flakes and 50 percent control HDPE bottle flakes—with the yield close to 100 percent,” she says.

Seeking wider adoption

Alexander explains that Colgate’s recyclable tube creates the opportunity for other companies to follow suit. Prior to Colgate’s accomplishment, no precedent had been set.

Now, other toothpaste tube manufacturers can follow the same steps Colgate did. “There is no more excuse for people to say that they are making tubes that are not recyclable,” he says.

“The full intent is that this is not just a Colgate project, but we are working to get all tubes converted,” Heaslip says. “We are fully engaged with the industry with the full intent on working with our competitors in a precompetitive nature to evolve the whole industry to get to this point.”

Even though Colgate has set a standard, other brands and companies might not be ready to take that step. Therefore, Alexander says, it is crucial to alert consumers that not all tubes are recyclable.

“We certainly applaud and encourage what Colgate has done, but we have to make sure the message gets out that not every tube is recyclable. Otherwise, you are going to be throwing tubes in, and it will be contaminating the stream even more. And that is what recyclers don’t need; they don’t need more contamination,” he says.

Expanding its plans

Going forward, Heaslip says Colgate plans to continue its sustainability efforts. “For 2020, we have three commitments. One is 100-percent-recyclable packaging in three of our categories: personal care products, home care products and pet nutrition products. We will have 50 percent recycled content. We will be using zero PVC (polyvinyl chloride),” he says.

By 2025, Heaslip says Colgate’s oral care packaging will be added to its 100-percent-recyclable goal, expanding it to the company’s entire business.

The author, based in Cleveland, interned with the Recycling Today Media Group.