Colgate-Palmolive Co. has developed a recyclable toothpaste tube and is willing to share the new packaging development with competitors.
The New York-based consumer goods company's breakthrough involves the use of multiple layers of high density polyethylene instead of the standard multiresin laminate that typically includes an aluminum layer.
The new toothpaste tube is a "squeezable" 13-layer structure of a resin that's typically thought of as rigid, Colgate said.
"The target all along was existing recycling streams. We felt it was very important all along not to have to create a specialty stream and have to figure out with infrastructure how are we going to handle special materials," said Tom Heaslip, worldwide director of global packaging at Colgate. "We immediately targeted the No. 2 HDPE stream because, certainly, it's the most compatible.
"The other stream would be PET and it's nowhere near compatible for the purposes we were trying to achieve [with tubes]," he said.
PET and HDPE are the two mostly commonly recycled plastics in the United States and typically accepted by material recovery facilities that sort recyclables.
HDPE previously had been thought too rigid to make an effective squeezable tube, the company said. But Colgate engineers developed different grades and thicknesses of HDPE laminate to create a tube that can be recycled.
A key issue for some consumer product packaging is the size when it comes to mechanical recycling, with smaller products falling through sortation equipment at material recovery centers and ending up in the trash. Colgate said testing at MRFs show that the company's typical toothpaste tubes can make it through MRFs and into the HDPE stream. Smaller sizes for travel, for example, still will fall through openings in the equipment.
Even with the challenges that size can create at MRFs, Colgate said testing shows the tubes are recyclable because more than 50 percent of them will make it to the end sortation lines.
Colgate-Palmolive is now shipping the HDPE-only tubes to retailers for the company's Tom's of Maine brand of antiplaque and whitening toothpaste. That brand will completely transition to the new tubes next year. The company's Colgate brand of toothpaste will begin transitioning to the new tubes next year.
Colgate estimates the company will make necessary changes to tube-making equipment in "more than a dozen of its facilities around the world" by 2025.
Colgate has spent about five years examining the recyclability of toothpaste tubes, spurred to action by a commitment to make all company packaging recyclable.
Much of that time was working with the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade group that has develop a wide range of technical specifications governing plastics recycling, to examine the challenges and opportunities of the project.
Even though Colgate has spent years developing a recyclable tube, the company said it has no interest in using the breakthrough for a competitive advantage.
"If we do this alone, it's no good for what our goals are here. Our goals here aren't to have a tube that's different than the industry and supposedly better than other people's tubes. Our goal was to establish a new standard that everybody can be a part of," Heaslip said.
"It won't be recycled if everybody is not a part of it," he said. "This is something we need people to join us on. We recognize this is the beginning of the journey. We're really proud and happy with what we've done, but this is just the first step. We want and encourage all of our competitors to join the journey."
Colgate, Heaslip said, is unique to some extent because the company manufactures its own tubes. Many competing firms rely on outside packaging companies. While Colgate has yet to talk with any other brand owners about the new tube, the company has engaged suppliers about sharing the new approach.
A toothpaste tube consists of an injected molded shoulder attached to film. Caps are typically polypropylene because the resin performs well with hinged openings. Colgate is working to develop HDPE caps that also would perform with hinges, the packaging official said.