Egyptians are believed to have started using a paste to clean their teeth around 5000BC. Ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have used toothpastes, and people in China and India first used toothpaste around 500BC. Ancient toothpastes were used to treat some of the same concerns that we have today – keeping teeth and gums clean, whitening teeth and freshening breath. The ingredients of ancient toothpastes were, however, very different and varied. Ingredients used included a powder of ox hooves' ashes, and burnt eggshells that was combined with pumice. The Greeks and Romans favored abrasiveness so their toothpaste ingredients included crushed bones and oyster shells. The Romans even added more flavoring to help with bad breath, as well as powdered charcoal and bark. The Chinese used a wide variety of substances in toothpastes over time that included ginseng, herbal mints, and salt.
The development of modern toothpastes started in the 1800s. Early versions contained soap and even betel nut. In the 1850s chalk was also used. Home Encyclopedia from 1860s described home-made toothpaste using ground charcoal as one of the main ingredients. In 1866 doctor Washington Sheffield of New London manufactured toothpaste into a collapsible tube under the name Crème Dentifrice. He got the idea after his son traveled to Paris and saw painters using paint squeezed from tubes. Previously, his toothpaste had been sold in porcelain jars with family members dipping their own toothbrushes into one household jar before brushing. The first toothpaste tubes were made of tin and lead, and remained basically the same until a metal shortage during World War II. The War Production Board restricted consumer use of many types of metal, including tin, lead and aluminum, creating a potential crisis in the toothpaste tube industry. During the war, manufacturers began creating toothpaste tubes from aluminum and plastic, while most of the tin and lead supply was needed for military usage.
Modern plastic tubes have one distinct functional advantage over the metal tubes: metal tubes are much more likely than plastic ones to tear or get a hole in them when rolled up. The toothpaste comes out of the perforations, which can end up as a messy business. The paste can then also become dry from air getting into the tube. Modern toothpaste tubes have a substantially cylindrical tubular body portion, one end of which is sealed by the conventional method of folding and crimping, and the other involving a relatively rigid shoulder portion of generally conical configuration that terminates in a nozzle portion from which the contents of the tube may be dispensed. The cap serves as the closure for the nozzle as well as the support for the toothpaste tube when in vertical position.
Linear life cycle
Tube packaging lowered the price of toothpaste and spawned the U.S. dentifrice industry. In 2015 toothpaste was the eighth leading health and beauty product category in the United States, with sales that generated approximately 2.97 billion U.S. dollars. Unfortunately, small size, blended material and leftover toothpaste inside toothpaste tubes often make recycling almost impossible. The tubes can be recyclable if they are made of only one material (aluminum or plastic) but the truth is that today they are often packaged as a mix of different materials. Most curbside recycling programs do not accept these tubes. Plastic used is also not biodegradable and can take anywhere from 500 to 700 years to break down. That is why today’s toothpaste tubes have mostly linear life cycle – and not a circular one.
ABL and PBL
The various components comprising the typical toothpaste tube can include any number of plastics, aluminum, steel and even nylon. Today’s most common multi-layer tubes are ABL (aluminum barrier laminate) and PBL (plastic barrier laminate). ABL consists of several layers of PE with an embedded aluminum barrier. This makes the laminate particularly suited to protecting aggressive and rapid-reaction filling materials. PBL consists of several layers of synthetic material with an embedded EVOH (ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer) barrier for protecting filling material. For toothpaste tube to be recycled it means each of these components must be processed separately. So, on top of the CO2 pollution involved of the production of each individual tube, it then becomes a very complicated process for the recyclers.
It is estimated that 400 million toothpaste tubes are discarded every year in the United States only. On the global level, that number raises up to 1.5 billion discarded toothpaste tubes. Also, roughly 8 million tons of different kinds of plastic end up in the ocean annually. A large part of the problem is littered waste, but it’s worth considering how a switch from using plastic goods that require landfilling or specialized recycling to ones that are biodegradable, compostable or zero-waste could reduce the possibility of polluting land and sea.
Designing toothpaste with sustainable and fully recyclable packaging is the only way to reduce waste going to landfills and oceans. By using new technologies and smart design we could save both the water and energy involved in the production, transportation and disposal of these products. What if we can make toothpaste that comes packed in paper package only? The key is to dehydrate the toothpaste and make easy-to-use toothpaste tabs. By doing that, we are completely eliminating the need for tube packaging.
Paper in numbers
Paper accounts for about half of all recyclables collected in the US, by weight. In 2010, 87 percent of the population had access to curbside and/or drop-off paper recycling. About forty-three million tons of paper and paperboard were recovered in 2013 – a recycling rate of about 63 percent. About 67 percent of newspapers / mechanical papers and 89 percent of corrugated cardboard were recovered in 2013. In 2013, the amount of paper recovered for recycling averaged 275 pounds for each person living in the US. Each ton (2000 pounds) of recycled paper can save 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, three cubic yards of landfill space, 4000 kilowatts of energy, and 7000 gallons of water. This represents a 64% energy savings, a 58% water savings, and 60 pounds less of air pollution!