Since the beginning of March, the toothpaste “Smile for Good” has been available in German stores – in the first tube made of 100 percent recyclable plastic. Colgate engineers spent five years tinkering with the material, which both protects the product and is comfortable to use.
Toothpaste tubes pose a problem for recycling. They typically consist of several layers of different plastics with aluminum foil embedded in them. Since the different layers cannot be separated again, it is practically impossible to recycle them in the conventional way. Colgate’s new tube is made of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which is also used in the U.S. food industry to make plastic milk bottles. Up to now, it has been considered too stiff and brittle to produce, say, a squeezable tube. This is precisely the major challenge in the switch to monomaterials, which many manufacturers are currently supporting.
Trend towards monomaterials
The trend away from mixed plastics towards homogeneous packaging materials is part of the efforts to achieve a recycling economy with clean material flows. However, the branded goods industry also needs flexible packaging, which usually combines several different types of plastic and an insulating aluminum layer. Achieving the same level of packaging protection with homogeneous material requires significantly thicker layers of material, i.e. more mass and weight – and so often simply means shifting from one ecological problem to another. Colgate says it has found a way to combine different grades and thicknesses of HDPE film to meet recycling standards while being flexible enough to allow the tube to be comfortably squeezed.
The recycling problem is not yet solved
However, the ecological goal will only be achieved when the innovative packaging is actually recycled. Many countries do not even have a corresponding recycling system. In Germany, too, experts estimate that the recycling rate in 2017 was below 16 percent. Moreover, although Colgate’s innovative tube is recyclable, it will be made from new plastic. For the recycling system to work, more companies would have to rely on packaging made of recycled plastic. Nevertheless, Colgate’s initiative is an important step: As a global branded goods company, Colgate reaches a large number of consumers. And it can also encourage competitors to become more involved in reducing the use of plastics.
Colgate wants to standardize recyclable tubes
Colgate has already announced that it will share the innovation with other manufacturers. “If we standardize recyclable tubes, we will all win and still maintain healthy competition with the contents of the tubes,” explains Dany Schmidt, Colgate-Palmolive’s Vice President and General Manager for the Central Europe West Region. In the long term, the Group intends to extend the new technology to the entire toothpaste range. By 2025, all Colgate tubes should be recyclable.
However, the composition of “Smile for Good” also differs from other Colgate toothpastes. It carries the “Cosmos Natural” organic seal and uses only a few ingredients, 99.7 percent of which are of natural origin. This means that the chemical requirements for product protection are comparatively low. The situation may be different for products with a more complex composition. It could therefore be that the manufacturer will in some cases change the product composition in order to make a consistent switch to mono-material.