For years I've thrown my spent toothpaste tubes into the recycling, assuming that since they're plastic and aluminum, they can be recycled. Turns out that's not always the case. "Although squeezable toothpaste tubes are made from plastic, they are difficult to recycle and it is unusual for councils to collect them as part of your recycling collection scheme," writes Recycle Now, England's national recycling program. "This also applies to other squeezable tubes that contain products like hand cream, sun cream and moisturising lotions."
U.S-based RecycleBank, a recycling advocacy and education organization, reports that "Many toothpaste tubes today are made of multiple materials laminated together, usually different types of plastic and aluminum. Like food pouches, the tubes are difficult to recycle because they're made of a mix of materials, and the materials are almost impossible to separate. Curbside recycling programs don't accept them for recycling."
An Australian waste management company called CleanAway claims that toothpaste tubes can be recycled--if you cut them open and scrape them clean, like this:
Few consumers, I believe, would go to the trouble. But Earth911, another recycling advocacy org, says that toothpaste tubes can be recycled if you cut them open and scrape them out, leaving the bare minimum of residue. As they report:
The sticky residue inevitably left inside toothpaste tubes makes these picks seem like another head-scratcher, but they're actually much easier to recycle than you'd think, Terracycle's lead scientist, Ernie Simpson, told Earth911.
"For bottles, toothpaste tubes or anything like that, one of the tricks for getting residuals out of these containers is to shred the material," Simpson said. "Once the materials are shredded, the surface area that has the residuals is exposed."
After toothpaste tubes are shredded, they pass through a washing cycle – where the pieces are cleaned with water or a simple biocide, a solution that dissolves bio-based materials. From there, shredded tubes are dried and enter a pelletizing step, where recycled materials are converted into pellets for use in new products.
Similar shredding and pelletizing processes are used for salvaging mouthwash containers and dental floss packaging for recycling, Simpson said.
To find out whether your local recycler actually processes toothpaste tubes, you'd have to call them to find out. If you are committed to recycling your toothpaste tubes, are willing to cut and scrape them after use and your local waste management company still won't take them, you do have at least one option: Recycling organization Terracycle has partnered with Colgate-Palmolive to recycle toothpaste tubes (and other oralcare products) free of charge.
It involves signing up and shipping your tubes--for free, Terracycle and Colgate picks up the tab--to one of their facilities. If you'd like to avail yourself of this service, you can get started here.
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Like you said, no one is going to go through this trouble.