You Can’t Put The Toothpaste Back In The Tube, But It Used To Be Easier

After five years of research, Colgate-Palmolive recently revealed Australia’s first recyclable toothpaste tube. Why is this exciting? They are eager to share the design with the rest of the toothpaste manufacturers and other tube-related industries in an effort to reduce the volume of plastic that ends up in landfills. It may not be as life-saving as seat belts or the Polio vaccine, but the move does bring Volvo and OG mega open-sourcer Jonas Salk to mind.

Today, toothpaste tubes are mostly plastic, but they contain a layer of aluminum that helps it stay flattened and/or rolled up. So far, multi-layer packaging like this isn’t accepted for recycling at most places, at least as far as Australia and the US are concerned. In the US, Tom’s of Maine was making their tubes entirely out of aluminum for better access to recycling, but they have since stopped due to customer backlash.

Although Colgate’s new tubes are still multi-layered, they are 100% HDPE, which makes them recyclable. The new tubes are made up of different thicknesses and grades of HDPE so they can be easily squeezed and rolled up.

Toothpaste Before Tubes

Has toothpaste always come in tubes? No it has not. It also didn’t start life as a paste. Toothpaste has been around since 5000 BC when the Egyptians made tooth powders from the ashes of ox hooves and mixed them with myrrh and a few abrasives like powdered eggshells and pumice. We’re not sure what they kept it in — maybe handmade pottery with a lid, or a satchel made from an animal’s pelt or stomach.

The ancient Chinese used ginseng, salt, and added herbal mints for flavoring. The Greeks and Romans tried crushed bones, oyster shells, tree bark, and charcoal, which happens to be back in vogue. There is evidence from the late 1700s showing that people once brushed with burnt breadcrumbs.

A jar of Zonweiss dentifrice. Zonweiss would later come in a metal tube. Image via Kilmer House

Get the Lead Out

In the 1800s, people were still using various types of tooth powders in the least sanitary way imaginable — you wet your toothbrush and dip it into this little glass jar over and over again. Gross, eh?

In 1824, a dentist named Dr. Peabody added soap — literally washing your mouth out as you brushed. This was later replaced by laurel sulfate, which made it more like paste and less like powder. In 1873, Colgate began mass-producing a smooth, minty paste in tiny glass jars. In 1886, Johnson & Johnson came out with Zonweiss tooth cream, which came with a tiny spoon for scooping it out and onto the brush. Zonweiss later came in tubes and is often credited as the first toothpaste in a tube, but that honor allegedly belongs to one Dr. Sheffield.

In case you’re wondering, other stuff was in tubes at this point, but no one had though to use them for toothpaste. That was until Dr. Sheffield’s son, who was studying dental surgery in Paris, saw a painter squeezing out paint from tubes onto a palette and suggested tubes to his father. In 1881, the first collapsible toothpaste tube hit the market, and it was made with tin and lead just like the paint tubes. Tin and lead, what does that remind you of? Yep, people used to take their empties and use them for solder. In World War II, toothpaste tubes were rounded up to make bullets.

Collapsible Colgate. Image via Smithsonian Magazine

Pump It Up

Some people like to squeeze every last bit of toothpaste out of the tube, which is admirable but can be difficult. We assume that this is why the toothpaste pump was born sometime in the 1980s — to make you feel like you’re getting it all out of there, or at least getting most of it out in a more sophisticated way. All these companies really need is a clever, collapsible design like this one. As long as it’s recyclable, of course.

Maybe we just need to change our behavior, making the tube more recyclable while adding in something reusable to satisfy consumer’s need to roll it up from the bottom. The 3D printing community has already solved this one in a number of different ways.

60 thoughts on “You Can’t Put The Toothpaste Back In The Tube, But It Used To Be Easier

  1. Sure you can put toothpaste back in a tube. I have one I bought years ago that you can refill for camping trips. It has two caps. One in the front where you put out your toothpaste into your brush. And another one you thread a larger tube into and squeeze and you refill it.

    1. When I used to travel more, I was sick of buying the overpriced travel size toothpastes, so I drilled out 2 caps and made a refill adapter like that. Looks like there is a good 3D printed design now “Toothpaste Tube Refillerizer”

      1. Who buy travel size toothpastes? I get them from my dentist twice a year. Each tube is good for at least 2 weeks. I used them so slowly that some of them go expired.

          1. I’ve been going every four months to get a cleaning and checkup for several years. At 65, My teeth & gums are healthier now than 30 years ago.

      1. Easy. After brushing, wrap your lips around the open cap and spit. Bonus points for moving all the paste to the front of your mouth and using your tongue as the plunger instead of blowing air.

  2. “Simple Toothpaste Squeezer” was one of my first and most useful 3D prints. Not only good for toothpaste but also baby creams and sunscreen. If you’ve got a printer and are looking for a useful print, look it up!

    1. The device it sounds like you made is sold as a thin folded aluminum key you can slide the end of the tube into and turn it to dispense. I use one with my GM silver sealant since that stuff cost anywhere from 2x to 4x the cost of your typical clear, blue and black silicone. It’s called a tube key.

  3. Why on earth would you pack a toothpaste tube inside a cardboard box? Other brands do not do so. Sufficient evidence that this is yet another greenwashing attempt.

      1. Yeah, I’m curious where the commenter lives. I don’t think I’ve ever not seen a toothpaste tube stiocked in a box.

        Regardless, that cardboard box can be one of the least environmentally impactful parts of the product. Paper recycling is a pretty mature technology (though this of course depends on the box being made from responsibly recycled paper and the local recycling infrastructure being good).

        1. Makes me think of Germany how they sell some condiments – especially mustard – in (aluminium) tubes. They are placed cap-down in a cardboard pallet that has holes to accept them, they all stand upright in a grid and you can stack a couple of them before the tubes give out. Or the pallet box will have support columns on the corners for stacking, leaving the sides open for people to grab product

        2. It’s a bit silly to “prove” this with pictures since nothing in this discussion hinges on it, but this is how a toothpaste shelf looks in the German-speaking parts of Europe, with loose and boxed tubes (the latter reserved for more “premium” brands or editions):

          Discount/store brands are oftentimes stocked loose in a shelf section, eschewing even the display box standing up the tubes:

          1. That makes perfect sense, but before seeing it I couldn’t imagine loose toothpaste tubes on a shelf. Just goes to show how pernicious the meddling of Big Tooth has become.

          2. Looks about right. Can confirm. Mix of boxed and cap-standing toothpaste.

            I only buy toothpaste in refillable glass jars, and get it refilled at the factory, out back, from this giant firehose-like tube. Of course, then you need to buy a toothpaste spoon to put it on your brush.


    1. Actually, Heinrich Hertz is now.said to have died from Granulomatosis with polyangiitis, GPA, whih previously had a different name thatshouodn’t be.mentioned. A rare autoimmune disease, I’ve yet to see how they determined that was the problem decades after he died. The disease wasn’t identified until the thirties. Ask Dr. Fauci, he did a lot of work on the disease.

      But nobody would notice since it’s a rare disease. Except I have it, was diagnosed two years ago, so I know about Hertz. I Ccept his retro diagnosis.

      Within my lifetime it went from terminal to chronic. It’s incurable, but can be kept in line. But I can die from the damage done to my kidney two years ago, chemotherapy brought it back “just enough” but if it gets worse, that’s it.

        1. Because the guy was a nazi.

          All I know is that in mid-April 2019 they told meI had it, and used the original name. And five months later they used another name. I thought it was a new disease.

          I was not in good shape in April, but I thought wikipedia had the original name. When I checked five months later, it redirected to the new name.

          It is hard, I can’t spell or remember the new name, but I won’t use the original name. My disease, my choice.

  4. From the linked article:

    “Tom’s of Maine had long maintained that aluminum was the material of choice for toothpaste tubes because of its recyclability… …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.”

    Talk about 1st world problems…

    I grew up in a 3 world country with the metal tubes. Never had an issue with those, not even as a kid.

  5. Brushing causes micro bleeding of the gums. In surgical conditions one does not share a tube to touch to your brush or worst of all share a glass! Brushes held in a common ring of septic water and that glass, what were we thinking.

    Baking soda and peroxide. Powder and liquid. Cheapest by far. Get fluoride by oral rinse or dental visit.

    1. What would work for fluoridation? My understanding is that the toothpaste remains on your teeth for a bit to do its work converting enamel to fluoridated enamel. Could you just brush with a neutral agent to remove debris and plaque buildup, then rub with a fluoride gel? Would there be any benefit besides easier storage, shipping, and recycling of the containers?

  6. Alternatives to the tube have been around for quite some time. I remember when I was growing up, we had this hard-plastic dispenser thing that you pushed down on it and it dispensed the correct amount of paste. The whole thing was plastic with the paste in an interchangeable syringe-like container, when you pushed down on the top of the dispenser, it would advance a ratchet mechanism until the syringe-cartridge was empty. The whole thing was recyclable as it was just white-colored HDPE plastic and a steel coil spring. The cartridges were just two pieces of HDPE, a tube with a ratchet carved into it, and a strong solid disc to act as a plunger, and the whole thing could be recycled or reused if you could disengage the disc from the ratchet notches.

    1. Same here in Sweden.

      If you really want to get everything out you cut them in half once you can’t squeeze anything more out and stick the toothbrush in to scrape it out.

      1. This is also the brand I use.

        My “hack” is to store the tube standing up and let some air into it after every use, so it looks full. This allows gravity to pull all the paste down. I believe this gets you much closer to actually emptying it then with any squeezing techniques, while being far less effort.

        If you don’t have time to wait on gravity, or if the tube fell over, screw the cap back on, hold the tube by the end and vigorously whack it back and forth for a second or two. This will push the toothpaste down quickly.

  7. Just minimising your use of the actual paste would make a much greater contribution to the reduction in consumerism that runs against the need for efficiency and sustainability. I’m no hippie, in fact I can’t stand greenies but I do think about the problem from first principles and using only as much as you need of anything always makes more sense than having a reusable container and never considering how much of the contents that you consume. As for tooth care specifically, try just eating the right foods, vigorously rinsing your mouth with water regularly and occasionally taking the dental probiotics streptococcus salivarius strains K12 and M18. Protecting your teeth while minimising the impact on the environment is not Colgate-Palmolive’s business, making a profit is, even if they stoop to greenwashing to doso, whatever gets fools to buy more of their product.

    1. Fair point on using less. And yes, abolishing the US Colgate/Crest duopoly would have a better impact than anything else. As for tooth care, though, you should still brush with something to remove biological crud and films, and assuming you believe in fluoride, to protect your enamel from further decay.

      It’s true that eating less sugar in your food would help a lot more, but impractical for most people when everything has added sugar.

  8. Toothpaste tubes and shampoo, and other soap/cosmetics bottles, seem to by far the worst plastic pollution. The amount of plastic in a shopping bag or plastic straw is minuscule in comparison.

    1. They have more material, yes, but they don’t cause more problems. Some of the worst plastic pollution is from micro-plastics in the environment, which seem to come from synthetic clothing among other sources, which get eaten by creatures low on the food chain. That can cause large downstream effects via a variety of routes. A (relatively) large tube or bottle in a landfill won’t break down fast, but also won’t go anywhere else. The smaller the items, or the smaller pieces they break down into, cause much more problems and are capable of traveling further than larger items are.
      While it doesn’t change anything if it doesn’t happen, larger containers like shampoo bottles are also much easier to recycle, while straws, plastic bags, and other single use plastic implements essentially never are.

    2. Also, a shampoo bottle/toothpaste tube is usually used in-house, in the bathroom, where it is very likely to end up in a trashbin (or better, recycling bin). Straws are used mainly in restaurants (trash) and takeaway – the latter has a much likelier chance of ending up on the street.

  9. Surely toothpaste should come in a thin plastic skin like supermarket pepperoni. You insert it into a syringe mechanism, which can be just plastic, or a luxury 3rd party steel, porcelain, etc affair.
    I don’t believe plastic recycling really works, so the solution is to use as little (and as thin) as possible.

    1. If you’re going to do that, why not put it in a dispenser like a liquid hand soap pump? Seems about the same, hard vs soft plastic wouldn’t make much of a difference for how it’s used

  10. i think everyone needs a little reminder:
    green is the enemy of sustainable;
    if you are green you are headed in the wrong direction,
    green is how you stretch the time possible for resource-accquition and regulation of a product.
    EG better fuel economy means our underground resources last longer, but not forever.

    using wood-combustion to get to work everyday is NOT sustainable, but once every 50 years IS sustainable because the trees grow at that rate, give-or-take.

    one commentor was right, most people use WAY too much toothpaste than required,

    take it from someone with issues; less works just as well,
    proper brushing technique has a far greater effect on outcome then say doubling or quadrupling the amount of toothpaste, its called brushing for a reason; there are very specific ways to brush hair, animals, and paint, and records(vinyl music), why would you assume otherwise for teeth?

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