No Cap: Colgate’s new eco-friendly containers, and recycling protocol, raise questions about consumer education and corporate responsibility
After 149 years (of rampant climate change and enormous toothpaste profit), Colgate has finally decided to “go green” and make its tubes recyclable. I say “go green” instead of go green, because what do recyclable toothpaste containers really mean in the context of toothpaste production, toothpaste shipment, and over a century of non-recyclable toothpaste containers? And will anyone actually recycle their toothpaste tubes? Will they even do so properly?
As the toothpaste giant first started manufacturing oral hygiene products in 1873 (which, for context, is the same year as the formation of Budapest and the beginnings of production for barbed wire and Levi jeans), it’s often credited with founding the category of oral care. (Say thanks to Colgate before your next first kiss or work ID photo.) Now, Colgate dominates 34% of the toothpaste industry. The company claims that its recyclable packaging could prevent billions of tubes from entering landfills each year. It’s the could that we need to focus on.
The particulars of recycling go much deeper than the blue-versus-black-bin understanding most of us who produce waste are accustomed to. Your recycling should be free of food and liquids. (Boo on you for all those unwashed takeout containers that dominate your recycling bin.) Luckily for Colgate, its product is water-soluble, so any residue will get washed out during the cleaning process at the recycling plant. But many companies who tout recyclable containers don’t share this blessing, and often fail to properly notify their consumers of that matter. An issue with Colgate, it seems, may be that some plants prefer cap-on, and others prefer cap-off, when it comes to recycling toothpaste tubes. It’s best to check your local plant’s policies on all things recycling if you really want to do it right.
“Though Colgate’s move is undoubtedly progress, however miniscule or substantial that progress may be, it brings into question the weight of importance of corporate and individual responsibility.”
To its credit, Colgate made its design open source before rushing into production, allowing other toothpaste manufacturers to use the same recyclable design. (This altruistic stance feels starkly unfamiliar in the shadow of the race to produce a vaccine which took a more capitalistic approach in decisions around sharing information.)
Though Colgate’s move is undoubtedly progress, however miniscule or substantial that progress may be, it brings into question the weight of importance of corporate and individual responsibility. Individuals need to take action and recycle their tubes, if Colgate’s corporate action is going to mean anything. But the individual choice to recycle requires the corporate action of Colgate making its tubes recyclable. In a toothpaste utopia, everyone would be able to squeeze earth and body-friendly toothpaste, produced by a local business, into a reusable container at an affordable price. But unfortunately, it’s unlikely that will be feasible on a mass scale in the near future. For now, we must hope that Colgate takes necessary action to empower its consumers with the knowledge of how to properly dispose of its new tubes, which it alleges will come in the form of a Recycle Me! graphic. And hopefully, Colgate is taking action beyond that which depends on its consumers to make its practice more sustainable.