Carbon Footprint of Toothpaste Tubes
Toothpaste tubes cannot be recycled in a single stream, or mixed recycling bin that is typical for most recycling services. The reason is that toothpaste tubes are made from layers of plastic and aluminum, and items like that with more than one component are difficult to recycle. So, if you throw you toothpaste tube in the recycling bin, it will get picked up and taken to the recycling facility, but it will still get picked out and discarded at the facility and will end up in the landfill. So, it might make you feel better to put your toothpaste tube in recycling, but you are not helping the environment. Our sustainability manager for the City of Golden likes to call this "wishcycling", when people put unrecyclable items in the recycling bin, wishing it were recyclable, but in the end all they do is waste somebody's time at the recycling facility.
The only facility that I know of that actually recycles toothpaste tubes is #Terracycle. They are a brave and determined company that takes on all the difficult plastic recycling times in the United States. Their goal is to help us turn our wasteful once-through extractive economy into a sustainable "circular" economy, where we continuously reuse all the resources we've already extracted from the environment. Aspire hosts Terracycle boxes to recycle toothpaste tubes, plastic toothbrushes and dental floss containers at our home store at 2009 Ford Street in Golden, CO 80401. Take your toothpaste tubes and get rid of them in the box on the front porch, and then start using Aspire tooth powder, which is in a refillable, recyclable container.
You can get your own box from Terracycle too. Check them out!
My basic question was, what is the environmental footprint of toothpaste? I wasn't able to find all the information I was looking for, but, being a former lab-rat, I love breaking things down and analyzing them, so I filled in the gaps for myself. I'm sure it's not perfect, but it will give you an idea, and hopefully inspire you to switch to tooth powder. Keep in mind, of course, that #Aspire tooth powder is the best!
What is the Carbon Footprint of a Toothpaste Tube?
A toothpaste tube is made up of layers of plastic and aluminum. To calculate the carbon footprint, I needed the weight of a toothpaste tube, and how much was aluminum and how much was plastic. That information was not out there. I even checked Colgate's site, and there is no environmental information on there at all, much less specifics on the toothpaste tubes. So I pulled a toothpaste tube out of the Terracycle bin on our porch and examined it. I cut it open, cleaned out all the residual toothpaste, and then weighed it.
To determine how much was aluminum and how much was plastic, I cut out two small squares of the tube. I flamed one square to burn off the plastic, and then weighed the aluminum that remained. The plastic was the remainder of the tube, easy to get by subtraction of the aluminum, but I like to come at a problem from at least two directions, to make sure I get the same answer. So, I dropped the second square into some muriatic acid, to dissolve the aluminum, then I weighed the plastic that was left behind. It turned out there were two layers of plastic, a thick outer layer, with the brand name and other printed information on it, and a super-thin inner layer, between the aluminum layer and the toothpaste. Another part of this is the toothpaste cap, and the top end of the tube, these are solid white, hard plastic, possibly PP, but the tube had no plastic symbols on it, so I don't know for sure. Yet another sign that the tube is not meant to be recycled, it is designed for a single use only.
Anatomy of a Toothpaste Tube
The empty toothpaste tube, with the cap and top cut off,
weighed 4.45 grams. 17% of that, or 0.31 gram, was aluminum, and
the rest, 4.14 grams, was plastic. The cap and top plastic
weighed 8.76 grams.
What is the carbon footprint of plastic?
kg of plastic produced. Plastic is a petroleum product, so the CO2 footprint includes producing the petroleum, refining it to produce the raw materials, ethylene, propylene and the like, that is then polymerized to make the plastic. This would be the minimum possible
footprint, because I'm not sure if the number includes transportation of the oil, refined ingredients or even the final plastic tube to the
toothpaste factory, but it definitely includes extracting, refining and
processing the raw materials. It also does not include the biggest
problems with petroleum extraction and refining, the pollution of land,
water and air from leaks and spills, and poisoning and displacing of
wildlife as they are squeezed from their habitats and stressed to the
brink of extinction, all so we can have the convenience of blithely
throwing away the final product after one use.
About 11.09 kg of CO2 is emitted per kg of aluminum produced. This includes digging the bauxite ore that aluminum is typically made from out of a mountainside somewhere, and going through all the processing of breaking up the rock, separation processes involving energy, water and chemicals to separate the aluminum from the rest of the rock, and then purifying it. And, mining is just as bad as petroleum in terms of the costs of extraction and pollution to land and wildlife.
So, rolling all these figures together, we can estimate the carbon footprint to manufacture a toothpaste tube.
Plastic: ((6 kg CO2/kg plastic) x (12.9 g Plastic/1000 g/kg))/(1000 kg/tonne) x (2200 LB/kg) = 0.17 LB CO2e* per tube.
*CO2e means CO2 equivalent
Aluminum: ((11.09 kg CO2/kg aluminum) x (0.31 g aluminum/1000 g/kg))/(1000 kg/tonne) x (2200 LB/kg) = 0.0076 LB CO2e per tube.
Toothpaste Tubes Increase Our Carbon Footprint by 3.5 billions tonnes of CO2 annually.
So, every time you consume a tube of toothpaste, that is a waste of 0.18 LB of carbon emissions. A single tube may not sound like that big a deal, but when we all do that, it's 900 million toothpaste tubes every year, which adds 160 million LBS of CO2e to our footprint in the U.S. alone. Worldwide, 20 billion tubes per year wastes a whopping 3.5 billion tonnes of CO2.
So, do you want to keep contributing to that waste, or do you want to be a part of the solution, and learn to live without once-through plastic? It's up to you. Think about all the other groceries you buy in once-through plastic containers. Are you recycling them? Can you avoid them altogether?
Collectively, in the U.S. we consume 35.4 million tons per year of plastic, and only 8.4% gets recycled. About half of that is single-use plastic, so that's a footprint of 106.2 million tonnes of CO2e just for single-use plastic. That plastic makes up about 13.2% of landfill waste, and is about 1.75% of the U.S. carbon footprint of 6 billion tonnes CO2e/year. So, we can reduce our CO2 emissions by 1.75% by stopping single-use plastic.
Toothpaste tubes also waste toothpaste. You literally can't squeeze it all out of there. On the internet, the average waste cited is about 5% of the toothpaste.
Tooth powder has no water in it, while toothpaste contains 20 - 40% water. This increases the carbon footprint of transportation by about 30%, just to transport it from the factory to the store. If a truck is used for transportation, that's 1.8 kg CO2e/kg-km of water, or an additional 171,000 tonnes of CO2e in the US, just to transport the extra water in toothpaste.
Tooth powder is an easy way to help our environment. Buy Aspire tooth powder instead of toothpaste. You can either recycle or refill the container. Tooth powder can help reduce plastic waste.