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 Toothbrush and Toothpaste Tubes?
How Are Oral Care Products Recycled?
Oral care products and packaging vary greatly by material and can include different numbered plastics, along with aluminum, steel, and nylon. In most cases, each of these components must be processed separately, making 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.
Can I Recycle Oral Care Products Locally?
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 at Preserve’s online store.
Through TerraCycle’s Oral Care Recycling Program, consumers can fill a box with 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 2 pounds, you’ll receive two TerraCycle points, which can be redeemed for cash donations to the school or nonprofit organization of your choice.
With the right information, you can also recycle toothpaste tubes through curbside or drop-off programs in your area, as long as you clean and prepare them yourself first. The trouble is that it can be difficult to determine what kind of material your toothpaste tube is made from, making it tough to tell whether or not your town accepts the material for recycling.
Toothpaste tubes are typically made from plastic #4, aluminum, or a plastic-aluminum composite. Generally, plastic #4 and aluminum tubes will be the easiest to recycle locally. Before trying to recycle your tubes, do a bit of research on your favorite brand’s website. Many companies will tell consumers what their product packaging is made from to make recycling easier. Be sure to check with your local recycling program before you put toothpaste tubes in your curbside bin to avoid possibly contaminating your other recyclables.
How to Prepare Toothpaste Tubes for Recycling
After you’ve tracked down the correct material, clean out your tubes, and use Earth911 Recycling Search to find recycling solutions in your area. To prepare your tubes, squeeze out as much of the remaining toothpaste as possible. Then, cut the neck off the top of the tube, and carefully cut a slit along the side. Rinse out any remaining toothpaste with warm water and soap, and it’s ready to recycle in areas where toothpaste tubes are accepted.
Please note that not all recyclers that accept aluminum or plastic #4 for recycling will be able to process toothpaste tubes. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you call local recyclers first before tossing tubes in a curbside bin or taking them to a drop-off location, even if they are clean.
You may also be able to recycle other forms of oral care packaging, such as mouthwash and dental floss containers, 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, use Earth911 Recycling Search to search for recycling options near you.
Can’t figure out the material from which some of your oral care product packaging is made? Continue reading for tips on finding a solution that works for you.
Precycle Your Oral Care Products
While recycling options exist for nearly every type 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 guess-work 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, Preserve will mail a new toothbrush to your home every three months, along with a “mail-back pack” to send the old one in for recycling. This is a small taste of the circular economy, in which all products are 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 paste-cleaning step when recycling, consider a tooth powder such as Eco-Dent’s DailyCare Toothpowder. 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: Flickr/ Axel Naud
Editor’s note: Originally published on May 15, 2016, this article was updated in October 2018.
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