Colgate-Palmolive: HDPE Toothpaste Tube

The Need: Traditionally toothpaste tubes were made of mixed materials, different plastics and aluminum, which prevented the tubes to be recycled. With over 20 billion toothpaste tubes manufactured each year, something had to be done to prevent tubes from entering the landfills and waterways. Colgate toothpaste is the #1 penetrated brand in the world which means that over 2/3 of the world’s households brush their teeth with Colgate. As a leader in this category, Colgate felt it was a responsibility to make a tube that was accepted by current conventional recycling streams and still met consumer and production standards.

The Solution: To make its recyclable toothpaste tube, Colgate chose High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), the “No. 2” plastic used to make milk jugs and other plastic bottles. Chosen because it is already widely recycled, HDPE had been thought to be too rigid to make a squeezable tube. Colgate engineers figured out how to combine different grades and thicknesses of HDPE laminate into a tube that meets recycling standards, protects the product and holds up to the demands of high-speed production, all while remaining comfortably squeezable.

What makes it particularly smart or circular? Colgate wants to make tubes a part of the circular economy by keeping the plastic productive and eliminating waste.  It is difficult to make a squeezable flexible tube out of rigid materials but the innovation to do that came by compiling several grades of HDPE material in a toothpaste tube. That correct combination allows people to comfortably squeeze out all the toothpaste, protects the integrity of the product, and meets the demands of high-speed production as well as importantly meets the recyclability standards, with HDPE as the only material.

Results, Benefits, and Outcomes to Date: Colgate’s HDPE tube achieved recognition by the APR (Association of Plastic Recyclers) in June 2019 by demonstrating that the tube material could be reused to make new plastic bottles and would successfully navigate the screens and conveyor belts used to sort recyclables. However, although Colgate is a large part of the category, the APR’s recommendation is that the entire category should move to ensure widespread acceptability. With that, Colgate decided to open source our technology (more info. on open sourcing below) and now close to 90% of the US based toothpastes have committed to moving to recyclable tubes by 2025.

Which of the Pact’s 4 Targets does your work help achieve? Target 2

How are you communicating your success? Colgate is sharing its innovative technology with competitors including information subject to Colgate patent applications filed in the U.S. and globally. And Colgate engineers have shared the Company’s technology at over 45  key packaging forums and other industry meetings. The decision to freely share the tube technology aligns with the Company’s values and sustainability goals. It also contributes to its ongoing work supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The Foundation’s mission is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. Colgate has also engaged with packaging and recycling stakeholders – including end consumers – to build awareness and acceptance of the “ready-to-recycle” tube.

What’s Next? In the U.S. in 2022, Colgate will print a large “Recycle Me” message on the front of the tube so that when the toothpaste is done, the message reminds people to put the tube into the recycling bin. 

Roadblocks & Lessons Learned: Early research showed that consumers weren’t willing to give up the “squeeze” of a traditional toothpaste tube so a PET or more rigid material solution would alienate users. The challenge was to figure out how to make a flexible, squeezable tube that met recycling standards. Although HDPE was considered, it was initially rejected for not having the pliability. It wasn’t until the engineering team looked at using different grades of HDPE where the tube still had squeezibility but met recycling standards. Another area of concern was how to move the rest of the category as per the APR’s recommendation but that became easy once the decision was made to open source the technology. As per CEO Noel Wallace: “If we can standardize recyclable tubes among all companies, we all win. 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.”

Core Team, Partners, & Participants: Global Packaging, Global Engineering, Corporate

Time Frame: Over 5 years

Quote: “All-plastic tubes do exist in the market today,” said Tom Heaslip, World Wide Director of Global Packaging. “It’s the challenge of using plastic resins that are compatible with existing recycle streams. 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. 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.”

Company/Organization Information: 1806, New York, NY.  Colgate-Palmolive is a leading global consumer products Company, focused on Oral Care, Personal Care, Home Care and Pet Nutrition. With more than 34,000 people and its products sold in over 200 countries and territories, Colgate is known for household names such as Colgate, Palmolive, elmex, Tom’s of Maine, Sorriso, Speed Stick, Lady Speed Stick, Softsoap, Irish Spring, Protex, Sanex, Filorga, eltaMD, PCA Skin, Ajax, Axion, Fabuloso, Soupline and Suavitel, as well as Hill’s Science Diet and Hill’s Prescription Diet. The Company is also recognized for its leadership and innovation in promoting environmental sustainability and community wellbeing, including its achievements in saving water, reducing waste, promoting recyclability and improving the oral health of children through its Bright Smiles, Bright Futures program, which has reached more than one billion children since 1991.

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