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Tom’s of Maine Pushes Innovation with Potato Starch Packaging

Words by Leon Kaye

Tom’s of Maine may now be part of the Colgate-Palmolive family, but to its majority owner’s credit, the earthy, yet polished, personal care products company is still a leader when it comes to sustainability. As Earth911 editor Mary Mazzoni’s feature article earlier this month explained, Tom’s is now tinkering with potato starch for some its polylactic acid (PLA) packaging. Potatoes are a huge part of Maine’s farming sector, but the company also has a long-term opportunity to divert food waste or crops that are below food grade from landfills and instead churn them into bio-plastic resin.

Compared to its competitors within the personal care and consumer packaged goods industries, Tom’s has pushed the boundaries of packaging sustainability and innovation. The company has ditched cardboard for some of its toothpastes; two years ago Tom’s eliminated aluminum toothpaste tubes in favor of laminate, which the company says is lighter, less energy intensive and reduces the number of steps from sourcing to shipping when compared to aluminum. One caveat: those laminate tubes have to be shipped to Terracycle if your community cannot accept them in the recycling stream. Nevertheless, the company has made progress as now 40 percent of the materials used in packaging is sourced from recycled materials.

So, what is the future of potato-based packaging, especially with concern over excessive use of conventional paper, cardboard and of course, fossil fuel-based plastic?

Other companies have experimented with potato starch-based packaging. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, PepsiCo considered churning potato peelings into compostable packaging for its Walkers crisps brand. The beverage and snack food giant had searched for an alternative to its much ballyhooed Sun Chips compostable bag, which the company rolled out then pulled off the shelves after customers complained they made too much of a ruckus. High end brands are now considering packaging formed out of spuds: the iconic champagne company, Veuve Clicquot, for example, launched a 100 percent biodegradable potato starch and recycled paper container that looks like a mutant bowling pin or avant-garde hair piece, but can keep the bubbly cool for up to two hours. And years ago, when the iPhone 3 shipped across Europe, Dutch potatoes comprised a tray in which those gadgets rested.

But, as Mazzoni outlines in her article, Tom’s potato-based packaging, if successful, could be a game changer. The challenge is for liquid materials to be stored, without degrading, within such a bio-PLA container—remember, a bottle of mouthwash can sit on the bathroom vanity for months in a humid environment. But the possibility a solid PLA alternative that can prevent the waste of tons of crops and provide farmers additional revenue is indeed an exciting thought. Tom’s track record of boosting consumers’ hygiene without stinking up the environment may just well continue.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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