Oral care products, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, may seem impossible to recycle. After all, how would a recycler remove all of that extra toothpaste from the tube or disassemble a toothbrush for recycling? Let’s take a closer look at this recycling mystery to get the low-down on keeping our pearly whites healthy without contributing to landfill waste.
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Can I Recycle Toothbrushes and Toothpaste Tubes?
Answer: Yes. But probably not all types through your local recycling program. Read on to learn your options.
How Are Oral Care Products Recycled?
Oral care products and packaging vary greatly by material and can include different types of plastics, aluminum, steel, and nylon. In most cases, each of these components must be processed separately, making it a tricky job for recyclers.
“Toothbrushes are one of the most complicated items that we collect for recycling across the board, simply because they’re made up of three different components,” said Stacey Krauss, U.S. public relations manager for TerraCycle, which accepts toothbrushes and oral care product packaging through its mail-back Oral Care Recycling Program.
“There are the nylon bristles, there’s a metal staple that holds the bristles in place, and then there’s the plastic handle. So, all three of those materials need to be separated before they can be processed,” she explained.
After toothbrush components are separated, metals are processed through standard recycling. The nylon and plastic components are shredded, cleaned, and pelletized for use in manufacturing items ranging from picnic tables and benches to playground equipment and bike racks, among other things, Krauss said.
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. After cleaning, 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.
Oral Care Products Mail-in Recycling Programs
If you use Preserve brand toothbrushes, Gimme 5 hosts a Preserve Toothbrush Takeback program: For every six Preserve toothbrushes that you send for recycling, they’ll give you a $6 coupon for Preserve’s online store.
Through TerraCycle’s free Oral Care Recycling Program, consumers can fill a box with any brand of toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and caps, toothpaste cartons, toothbrush outer packaging, and floss containers and mail it back to TerraCycle for recycling. For each shipment over 5 pounds, you’ll earn TerraCycle points that can be redeemed for cash donations to the school or nonprofit organization of your choice.
Can I Recycle Oral Care Packaging Locally?
Recycling rules vary by region, so check with your local recycling provider if you have any doubts. If their recycling guidance doesn’t list toothbrushes, floss containers, toothpaste tubes, or another item you hope to recycle, ask them if they can process it. Putting materials in your curbside bin that your program doesn’t accept can end up contaminating your other recyclables.
Toothpaste tubes are often made with a combination of different plastics and a thin layer of aluminum. This mix of materials makes them hard to recycle and it is unlikely they are accepted through your curbside recycling pickup. However, that may change. In 2019, Colgate started transitioning to toothpaste tubes made of recyclable #2 plastic (HDPE), and other brands are not far behind.
Although the transition to recyclable tubes is not complete, if you have this type of toothpaste tube, you may be able to recycle it. If the tube has the #2 (HDPE) recycling code on it, check with your local recycler to confirm they are prepared to process #2 plastic toothpaste tubes before putting them in your curbside bin. You may be instructed to drop off the material at a collection center.
You may be able to recycle other forms of oral care packaging such as mouthwash bottles through your local curbside recycling program. After emptying and rinsing your containers, check on the bottom for the plastic recycling code. Once you know what kind of material you’re dealing with, check with your local recycler or use Earth911 Recycling Search to search for recycling options near you.
Precycle Your Oral Care Products
While recycling options exist for many types of oral care product packaging, you’ll make disposal much easier for yourself by choosing easy-to-recycle products and packaging ahead of time (aka precycling).
For toothbrushes, consider switching to a model with a replaceable head to minimize waste. Rather than tossing an entire toothbrush every three months, simply replace the head and continue using the handle for months to come. Most replaceable head models, like these from Eco-Dent and Radius (which uses recycled materials in the handle), cost about the same as conventional toothbrushes. Or, consider bamboo toothbrushes as an alternative to plastic.
To take the guesswork out of toothbrush disposal, you can also sign up for a toothbrush subscription with Preserve, an upcycling company that makes toothbrushes and other products from recycled #5 plastics. Through the subscription, you pick how frequently you want to receive your new toothbrush (every one to three months). Your Preserve toothbrushes are recyclable through Preserve’s mail-in recycling program. This is a small taste of the circular economy, in which all waste is recycled.
When choosing your toothpaste, consider a brand that offers a take-back program for tubes and packaging, such as Tom’s of Maine. If you want to skip the toothpaste tubes, consider a tooth powder, such as Eco-Dent’s DailyCare, or a toothpaste tablet, such as WELdental Chewtab. Or, do a little research before you shop to find a company that notes packaging materials on its website to make finding a recycling solution easier.
Make Your Own Toothpaste
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can also make your own toothpaste at home from natural ingredients, eliminating packaging waste entirely. Check out these homemade toothpaste recipes from Instructables, DIY Natural, and Crunchy Betty to get you started. Since different mouths have different needs, talk to your dentist before making the switch to a homemade toothpaste to make sure the recipe you chose is right for you.
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Feature image: Axel Naud, Flickr
Editor’s note: Originally published on May 15, 2016, this article was updated in June 2021.