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.
Image credit: Tom's of Maine via Facebook
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. 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.