Colgate’s groundbreaking recyclable tube recently won the Research & Development Council of New Jersey’s Edison Patent Award, the most prestigious patent award in the state.
Dr. Jun Wang, a technical associate at Colgate-Palmolive who spearheaded the efforts behind the recyclable tube, was given the honor. Winners were selected by a team of R&D Council researchers who evaluated patents for the significance of the problem, utility and socio-economic value, novelty, and commercial impact, per the R&D Council.
Below, Wang explained how the exciting innovation came to life, why the Edison Award means so much to the company’s ongoing efforts, and what the future looks like for the recyclable tube.
Q: When did the work for the recyclable tube begin?
Wang: Toward the end of 2013. With the Colgate brand in more homes than any other and as the largest producer of toothpaste tubes in the world — and with Colgate’s sustainability and social impact goals in mind — we were inspired to innovate and create a recyclable tube, even though we knew we weren’t sure what was the appropriate solution. But we were committed to putting in the effort to make our toothpaste tubes recyclable.
The first challenge we faced was how to make our tubes technically recyclable. From the very beginning, it was important for us to receive the endorsement from industry, particularly the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR). We started to become active participants in their conferences to learn more about how they designed this entire design guidance and evaluation protocols for plastic recycling system.
Q: Can you lead us through what it took to create the recyclable tube?
Wang: When we set out to create the tube, we knew there were three potential solutions for how we could go about creating a recyclable tube. The one that’s most challenging — and the one that’s most preferred since our in-house manufacturing supports it — is creating a recyclable laminate tube (laminate tubes are the ones you most commonly see at the store).
One of the other two solutions was polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles — which we explored and eventually used to create Colgate Elixir — and the other was to use the production process of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles, which were like plastic milk bottles in tube form.
In 2019, after we spent six years prototyping different structures and eventually locked in the final HDPE structure, Colgate’s recyclable tube became the first to be recognized by the APR. That same year, our Tom’s of Maine brand debuted the recyclable tube. And earlier this year, Colgate Total launched the recyclable tube.
Q: What kind of support did you and your team have to create this innovative technology?
Wang: At Colgate, our purpose is our north star: we’re a caring, innovative growth company that’s reimagining a healthier future for all people, their pets, and our planet. And our commitment to packaging and sustainability is very strong, especially in the tube area, so our management team empowered us and gave us the support we needed. At the very beginning, we were encouraged to try whatever we believed would work and given the resources we needed to be successful, including the time to attend APR conferences and travel to our suppliers and manufacturers around the world.
Each trial that we had for our prototypes wasn’t done in a lab — we brought our innovations to our manufacturers’ facilities.
Q: What does the Edison Award mean to you and to Colgate?
Wang: The Edison Award recognition shows that this really works not just on paper, but that it’s a game-changing technology that can change the industry and has practical applications in the real world.
After we debuted the recyclable tube, we opened up the technology to tube suppliers globally — anybody who wants to take advantage of the technology and use it could do so. And almost every tube supplier and manufacturer came up with their version of a recyclable tube.
Q: What’s next for the evolution of the recyclable tube?
Wang: We’ll continue to optimize the tube structure, which right now includes targeting a migration to HDPE caps to improve the recycling yield of tubes. We are also working to further refine the squeezability of the tube, reduce plastic, as well as continuously improve the economics of tube production to accelerate the global transition.