Technically yes, you can recycle a toothpaste tube. But, is recycling the best way to deal with plastic waste? In my opinion it’s not.
That’s why Solid exists after all.
It’s also important to note that only a tiny percentage of toothpaste tubes are actually recycled. A staggering 1.5 billion toothpaste tubes still end up in landfills every year.
For this month’s blog, I thought I’d take a close look at what’s involved in recycling your typical toothpaste tube.
A toothpaste tube is made up of layers of plastic laminate and aluminium, topped off with a #5 plastic lid. In the recycling industry it’s what’s known as a “Frankenstein’s monster” – mixed material packaging that must be separated before the individual parts can be recycled.
What happens if you put toothpaste tubes in your recycling bin?
Recycling in New Zealand isn’t designed to deal with items out of the ordinary, even if they are an accepted plastic number like #2. New Zealand recycling also does not accept any lids. Most likely, these items will be sorted out and end up in landfill.
One company will accept certain brands for recycling – US-owned Terracycle. In their own words, Terracycle have “proven it is possible to recycle, upcycle, or reuse nearly everything on Earth”. And they do mean anything – there is currently has a Terracycle cigarette butt recycling programme sponsored by British American Tobacco.
These companies (usually multinationals) pay Terracycle to figure out a way to recycle their products. The Oral Care Recycling scheme is funded by toothpaste giant Colgate. Colgate used to accept other brands’ oral care waste into their recycling scheme, though they stopped this in 2023 and now only accept Colgate branded items.
The flow-on effect of this means that Kiwi brands who previously piggybacked off this scheme have either stopped accepting tubes altogether, or are storing them in a warehouse until they work out what to do with them.
At present, there’s no way to recycle toothpaste tubes in New Zealand.
I got in touch with Terracycle to find out what happens once the oral care waste reaches the NZ Terracycle facility. Some items are processed here, however complex mixed material items such as toothpaste tubes are sent to the USA for processing.
The mixed material tubes are put through a specialist process to separate the materials for individual recycling. The recovered low grade plastic is used to make park benches, playground equipment, and planter boxes.
Like every solution to our waste problem, recycling toothpaste tubes and oral care waste has both positives and negatives.
The pros of recycling toothpaste tubes
- Companies take on some responsibility for the life-cycle of their products. Partnering with Terracycle is obviously better than simply ignoring product waste.
- Community groups, schools and non-profits benefit by receiving money and prizes from participating in the Oral Care Recycling scheme.
- The Oral Care Recycling scheme introduces young children to the concepts of reducing and managing waste.
The cons of recycling toothpaste tubes
- Toothpaste tube recycling is a one off “downcycle” rather than a true circular system.
- The process involves shipping waste overseas, sorting it, and specialist processing it, and this creates carbon emissions.
- It ignores the fact that a lot of waste could be designed out of oral care products prior to recycling them. Yes, I’m looking at you, plastic blister packs, plastic floss containers and toothpaste boxes!
- It reinforces the message that we don’t really have to give up our plastic convenience items because we can just “recycle” them.
I’m not anti-recycling. Some items, such as aluminium cans, seem to work well in a properly-managed recycling system. But in general, I think developing robust circular re-use systems is a better way to deal with our waste problem.
I’m the first to admit – Solid’s system isn’t perfect either. But, like other companies in this space, I am constantly working on new ways to get our toothpaste to our amazing customers, in the most sustainable way possible.