If we can put an astronaut on the moon, why can't we make a plastic toothpaste tube that can be recycled?
That might have been a valid question a year ago. But not anymore.
This month Colgate-Palmolive Co. delivered to retailers the first tube recognized as being recyclable by the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
Colgate's Tom's of Maine brand is the first to use the new package. The company's Colgate brand of toothpaste will start to use the new tubes next year.
Most conventional toothpaste tubes are made from sheets of plastic laminate sandwiched around a thin layer of aluminum. The mix of different plastics and metal makes them impossible to recycle.
Colgate's new design is a 13-layer structure of high density polyethylene. Colgate engineers figured out how to combine different grades and thicknesses of HDPE laminate into a squeezable tube that meets recycling standards, protects the product and holds up to the demands of high-speed production.
Colgate went about this project the right way. Too often, brand owners settle on the design for a plastic package and declare it "recyclable," without asking recycling experts for their opinion.
Unfortunately they often end up with packages that, in reality, cause headaches for recyclers, creating waste and extra costs. We could point to many examples of containers that have difficult to recycle labels, for example, or multilayer designs that contaminate existing recycling streams.
Putting a chasing arrows label on a package doesn't make it recyclable.
Jim Johnson reported that package size was also a key factor in deciding whether Colgate could call the toothpaste tube recyclable. Smaller products tend to fall through sortation equipment at material recovery centers. Colgate said testing at MRFs show that the company's typical toothpaste tubes can make it through MRFs and into the HDPE stream.
It took five years for Colgate to develop the new tubes. Now it's up to others to follow suit. Colgate is sharing its technology, including information subject to Colgate patent applications filed in the U.S. and globally, with its competitors.
The idea is to make plastic tubes a widely recycled kind of plastic packaging, just like PET soda bottles and HDPE milk jugs. In other words, turning a recycling nightmare into a recycling success story.
"If we can standardize recyclable tubes among all companies, we all win," Colgate President and CEO Noel Wallace said. "We want all toothpaste tubes — and eventually all kinds of tubes — to meet the same third-party recycling standards that we've achieved. We can align on these common standards for tubes and still compete with what's inside them."
Colgate engineers are already sharing the company's plans at packaging forums and other industry meetings. One major tube maker, Essel Propack, has already earned APR recognition, and another, Albéa, is working towards recognition.
That's good business. If other companies' tubes are recyclable, then more communities will include them in curbside programs. Recyclers will be happy to have the additional stream. Consumers — who want to recycle all their plastic — will feel better about using plastic tube packaging.
And, as an added plus, plastic recycling plants may start to smell minty and fresh instead of like sour milk.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.