Tom’s of Maine Ditches the Aluminium Toothpaste Tube

You may have noticed something new in the toothpaste aisle, and it’s not an even more elaborate toothbrush. Tom’s of Maine recently changed the tube your toothpaste comes in from the much loved, and apparently, much maligned aluminum tube to a more mainstream plastic laminate. The aluminum toothpaste tube was the original environmental packaging and I was eager to get to the bottom of the switch.

Tom’s of Maine had long maintained that aluminum was the material of choice for toothpaste tubes because of its recyclability. I feared that the switch was related to Tom’s relationship with it’s parent company Colgate-Palmolive. I’m pleased to report that Colgate-Palmolive had nothing to do with the change in materials. Rather, the decision came after a careful review of a decade of consumer comments and a reevaluation of the assumption that aluminium was the most environmentally friendly material available.

Why the switch?
When viewed in aggregate, 25% of packaging complaints about Tom’s products were related to the aluminium tube. Customers complained of cracks and splits that caused the product to leak. Parents complained that the tube was too hard for young toothbrushers to use; older customers had the same difficulties.

Says plant manager Bill Hetzel, “we had taken it as an indisputable fact that aluminium was the best material available, because of its recyclability, but the customer complaints challenged us to reconsider. We looked into the life cycle of our toothpaste tubes and realized that they weren’t actually being recycled as often as we’d like, and even if the tubes made their way to recycling facilities many would not accept them because of the plastic caps attached.”

The decision to move to more conventional packaging was not taken lightly. The customer comment review process took several years, and once the company determined that aluminium was out, the selection of plastic laminate and the factory switchover took about a year. Says Ellen Saksen, Toothpaste Brand Manager, “as a Tom’s of Maine employee, one of the first things you learn is to seek council. Over the course of the decision making process, we had hundreds of meetings. We needed to make sure the change was was right for the consumer and right for the company. Our stewardship model is very detailed. Consumers are hard on us, we welcome that, and we’re hard on ourselves.”

Why plastic laminate?
Once aluminum was off the table, the field was wide open. The company considered biodegradable plastics, paperboard, and many other materials.

Because some of Tom’s of Maine’s toothpastes contain fluoride, the company is under strict FDA regulations about tube materials- they have to be very durable and pass rigorous testing. After much consideration, plastic laminate was chosen because it meets the FDA standards and because it is a lot lighter than aluminium. The weight of the product is key because it means the transport of the product has a much lower carbon footprint than the old aluminium tubes.

The tubes are also a lot more flexible and easier for little hands to squeeze.

Where is it sourced?
Tom’s selected a tube manufacturer a truck drive away from its factory in Maine. The manufacturer was carefully selected for its focus on sustainability- a value shared by Tom’s of Maine. The manufacturer recycles scraps from the manufacturing process and accepts Tom’s of Maine’s tube waste. Damaged tubes and the tubes returned by customers are returned to the manufacturer so that they can be incorporated into the downcycling stream. The recycled material is used mostly in industrial applications like bumpers for pallets, but the company is continuously sourcing new ways to reincorporate waste into the product stream.

How have customers responded?
The response has been 10:1 positive on the switch. That one customer who expresses dissatisfaction is not a surprise for Ellen Saksen, “change is hard, especially when it comes to a product you use every single day.”

What’s up next?
The toothpaste team is looking for better ways to recycle the new packaging. They’re also working with distributors to get rid of the cardboard cartons that surround the tubes. Kids toothpaste is already sold without a carton and the adult versions are next in line for dematerialization.

The company has also funded research into bio-plastics. The most promising project on tap is one that incorporates local Maine potatoes into the packaging.

Jen Boynton

Jen Boynton is editor in chief of TriplePundit and editorial director at 3BL Media. With over 6 million annual readers, TriplePundit is the leading publication on sustainable business and the Triple Bottom Line. Prior to TriplePundit, Jen received an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School. In her work with TriplePundit she's helped clients from SAP to PwC to Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA -- court appointed special advocate for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

23 responses

  1. Thanks for this great article! I have been using Tom’s for 20 years and I will miss the old tube! Your blog helps me with the change hopefully in a graceful way in this long standing relationship!

    1. Since the buyout by Colgate, the new changes to the toothpaste are revenue enhancements not product enhancements. The change from aluminum to plastic and reduction of quantity from 5.5Z(155.9g) to 4.7 OZ(133g) of product. Can anyone clarify the change from previous Sodium Fluoride .24% to Sodium monofluorophosphate .76%? I used to stock my supply of toothpaste with about ten tubes at a time. Great product until the latest product changes. My gums are not even reacting to this very well. I am returning the few boxes I have left and will be looking for alternate natural products. A message to the previous owners …Dear Tom of Maine, you had a great product until you decided to sell out this terrific creation to a corporate toothpaste behemoth. Why couldn’t you have merged with other smaller natural product manufacturers and kept you unique high quality brand and reputation intact, why? A very original healthy American product ruined by bad business practices. Time to look for a replacement to Tom’s of Maine. By it’s been good using you product.
      Saddened, disgruntled and indignant former customer.

      1. Shut the hell up! Its toothpaste for goodness sake! I prefer the new tubes. The old tubes did leak and crack. I wan’t able to squeeze the tubes and ended up wasting toothpaste. Thanks Tom of Maine! :) You sound like a lunatic…ranting about toothpaste packaging..really???

        1. I never had an old tube leak or crack. For travel, I packed a small plastic travel tube (Crist or Coldgrate) if I knew I was going to be smashing my toothpaste between rocks or my keys. What do your people do with your tubes?
          The new Tom’s plastic tubes are SMALLER. This is a ripoff. Same price, more profits for greedy corporates. 

          The plastic tubes take more time to deal with. They unroll every time you roll them up. The old Al tubes never did this. They were always ready. And when they were empty, I knew they were empty. 

          I am going to find a source for the ingredients (just need xylitol and calcium carbonate now, food-grade) . Will let you know here the recipe when done. This stuff costs too much to begin with. 

  2. The new tube is 14.5% smaller, for the same amount of money. This is a. 14.5% more revenue for the same cost.
    b. 14.5% more packaging waste.
    c. Part of a trend to reduce the amount of product in the food/sundry industry and charge the same amount of money.

  3. I am another disgruntled and unhappy former Toms customer. Toms sold out and what we’re left with is more plastic in our plastic world. Your explanations for the change from aluminum to plastic do not satisfy me, I think they were entirely profit related.
    I will be looking for another brand that still uses aluminum, does anybody know of one?

  4. They also change the natural spearmint and mint oils for “aroma”?? Why??? to save money? Natural oils is not only for the taste but have medicinal properties. It’s not the same in mouth, i was really surprise when I brush my teeth.

    I’m saddened and disgruntled too.

  5. Why on earth shrink the tube? Good grief! And you got bought out? Oh my goodness, can’t anyone with a great company and product just resist the urge to make tons of money by “selling out?” Were you about to go under?

  6. I just bought a new tube, not realizing that they had changed “recipes” and was shocked at the horrible taste of “Wicked Fresh”. There is nothing fresh about it and leaves a horrible after taste. I can’t believe I’m so upset over a tube of toothpaste! The change from aluminum to plastic and a smaller tube was clearly for more profit. I have been looking for an alternative but haven’t had any luck yet. They should seriously think about bringing back the “classic”.

    1. Why is everybody saying that the driver was only money? Of course money is important, but for sure aluminum is less sustainable than the laminated one. The claim should be only about the changes on the raw materials and not to produce the “classic” one with the non-sustainable aluminum packaging.

  7. Yesterday, inspired by the book Plastic Ocean – by Capt Charles Moore and the website I began working on a mission for my family of four…become a plastic-free family.  I went to Whole Foods to purchase toothpaste and what a disappointment…the one brand I knew was packaged in aluminum tubes went plastic.  The excuses for doing so (above) are so lame.  Plastic recyclability is a charade – there is so much plastic out there and the greatest percentage of it does not even make it to the recycling bin.  And of the percentage that does, unless there is a buyer for it, will go to the landfill anyway.  Greed once again.  What a shame!

  8. i’m glad to have found this forum.  i was so disappointed in Tom’s new tubes.  it’s very hard to get all the toothpaste out, and you can’t flatten the empty part of the tube.  i called to complain and they said they changed it because so many people asked for it.  i don’t like how it tastes any more either.  i’m trying Desert Essence Natural Tea Tree Oil toothpaste, mint flavor.  jury still out.  i’d like to find a not-sweet peppermint paste in an aluminum tube.  if anyone knows of one, please post!!!

  9. Weleda toothpaste comes in an aluminum tube, but I believe that it is shipped from Germany.  Having your toothpaste manufactured half way around the globe isn’t exactly eco-friendly.  You could always find recipes for homemade toothpaste . . .

  10. I’ll go along with the plastic tube ….. only IF Tom’s increases from 5.5 oz tube.  Maybe Tom’s ought to look into a giant size container, e.g. 1 1/2 lbs. and refillable tubes.  The larger the amount of product, saves $$ for the consumer, plus saves a zillion used-tubes to recycle or, worse yet, go to the landfill. 
    Think I’ll also try Desert Essence Natural Tea Tree Oil toothpaste, mint flavor that Susan suggested.
    I also just read that Colgate-Palmolive is the parent company of Tom’s; that disillusions me because I thought Tom’s was a family-owned company.

  11. The first new plastic tube seal that I used opened up in the bottom corner and leaked toothpaste on my medicine cabinet shelf. I had to fold the bottom and seal it with duct tape to use the rest of the tube. If they are going to sell out, they should at least do it with quality manufacturing!

  12. Hello, does any one know of a toothpaste tube manufacturer in the U.S. that is eco-friendly? My wife developed a toothpaste that is amazing and I would like to market it but I don’t want to go the way that all the big companies have done. Our mission is high quality personal hygiene products at an affordable price with eco-friendly components. Thanks!

  13. The new tubes are AWFUL. The recyclable plastic line is a charade. It’s about less product in cheaper packaging.Aluminum recycles perfectly and NATURALLY in the ground.

  14. This is all PR jive — including Jen Boynton’s “article.” She says: “The weight of the product is key because it means the transport of the product has a **much** lower carbon footprint than the old aluminium tubes.” No, it’s a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction of a tiny fraction, if the new tube material is actually lighter (doubtful).
    Tom’s of Maine says: “…the decision came after a careful review of a decade of consumer comments…” It’s all about customer perception. Remember, Al Gore is only green because media flacks say so.

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