How Colgate-Palmolive Got the Industry to Shift to Recyclable Toothpaste Tubes

By Hadley Thompson |  December 29, 2023

The toothpaste tube has been part of our lives for more than a century. But it’s only since 2022 that you can find a tube on your drugstore shelf with a prominent “Recycle Me!” message on it.

That’s just one project that Ann Tracy, the Chief Sustainability Officer at Colgate-Palmolive, has helped shepherd to market.

Tracy has been at Colgate for a little over 32 years, much of that time working in the supply chain organization. In early 2020, she was asked to lead global sustainability at the New York-based consumer packaged goods company.

We spoke with Tracy about making the recyclable tube happen; the company’s three “ambition pillars”; and how it tracks progress toward its sustainability and social impact goals. 

ESG Terminology

ESG has been very politicized. I prefer to use the term sustainability. Sustainability to me, simply put, is about making the world — environment, and society — better for our future generations. 

Sometimes, people associate sustainability only with the environment. In my mind, it’s both the environment and society. 

We do call our strategy our sustainability and social impact strategy because we want to make sure that there’s an emphasis on the social aspect. We are a business. We do care about profits, and we care about people, but we also care about making the world a better place — the infamous triple bottom line, as they call it.

Three ‘Ambition Pillars’

We have three ambition pillars: driving social impact, helping millions of homes, and preserving our environment. Eleven actions sit underneath those three pillars, and close to 50 targets. 

Our most important project under driving social impact is called “Bright Smiles, Bright Futures,” where we’re helping to bring oral health and hygiene education to children and underserved communities all over the world. We’ve reached 1.6 billion children since we started. 

Preserving our environment is part of our climate initiatives. It’s about eliminating plastic waste, responsible sourcing, water stewardship, and zero waste.

The ‘Recycle Me! Toothpaste Tube

We had to commit to becoming 100 percent recyclable across all our plastic packaging, and we knew, to do that, we had to tackle the tube. Colgate being half of our name is a major part of our business. We make a little over half of the world’s toothpaste tubes every year. So we knew this…was a space where we wanted to lead. 

Next, we had to engineer and build the technology to make an acceptable recyclable tube. We put some clear criteria in place. It had to be a mono-material plastic — that is, already existing as an accepted recycling stream. We chose HDPE, which is the opaque milk jug type of plastic, also very rigid, I would add. We understood that the end product had to look and feel like a tube that consumers would accept. The tube also had to preserve the fluoride and the flavor. It had to maintain the quality of the toothpaste inside.

We committed to moving [that new material] across all of the nine-billion-plus tubes that we sell every year. But if only Colgate did that, and not the other two manufacturers, we would never reach that scale required to make something truly recyclable. 

We decided to share the technology, and we’ve done that now with over 70 different venues and companies. Three-fourths of the tube manufacturers have committed to also moving to the recyclable HDPE tube by 2025. By the end of this year, we should reach a critical mass in the US, where almost every tube will be recyclable by the end of this year.

Spreading the Word

In the US, we [have] material recovery facilities or recycling facilities, [and we need to] help them to understand that these tubes are now recyclable. It’s a lot of communication, working with NGOs, [and with] different consortiums. 

The last piece of the puzzle is to start communicating with consumers, so they know.  We’re doing this in a very deliberate order. Imagine if, when the first tube rolled off the line, in 2019, we ran out and told all consumers, we have a recyclable tube, you can recycle your tubes. They weren’t there yet. We couldn’t say much then. 

Sharing the Innovation

No one company can do this stuff alone. It almost sounds clichéd, but it’s true. The partnerships can take many forms and shapes. They can be consortiums, it can be NGO-led groups, it can be trade associations, but you have to be selective, and you have to understand the objectives. 

We partner in a very safe way with our peers and our competitors. We also are part of some work groups that are facilitated by groups like WBCSD, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. They work on other issues that are important to us. 

The Beginning Stages 

To be successful, you have to have very accurate data and have a good method for tracking it. That’s going to get even tougher here shortly with some of the regulations that are coming in Europe in the US.

The data tracking process and automation remain a challenge for us and all our peers out there. We’re working on that. There are lots of solutions, knocking at our door every day. But that’s that’s one main challenge. A second challenge is that some of these solutions until you scale them, tend to be more expensive. That’s always a challenge in a business because one of the important things a business does is make money for all its shareholders and stakeholders. 

When we rolled [the new tube] out, we rolled it out knowing that it was more and more expensive for us to produce, but we were committed to doing it anyway. We have an excellent discipline of taking costs back down and taking costs out in a very controlled way. As you scale, automatically you get more efficient. So we built a side-by-side plan that said we’re committed to getting all our tubes recyclable by 2025. We were also committed to getting it back to cost neutral to where it was. You have to have the conviction to scale. 

I also believe it is important to challenge some of the ROI-type models when it comes to sustainability. Sometimes, some of the things we do in sustainability are longer-term, and we need to take that into account. 

Finally, because we are a consumer goods company, better understanding the consumer is important as well, to get them to adopt our products.