Is There a Reason Toothpaste Has to Be in a Box?

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That's a lot of boxes holding tubes of toothpaste. dcwcreations/Shutterstock

Buying toothpaste can raise all sorts of questions. Which brand? Do I want whitening? Are my teeth sensitive? Is plaque still a thing?

A question you may not ask yourself is why the toothpaste tube comes in a cardboard box. After all, the tube is what actually holds the toothpaste. It would be like putting shampoo or shaving cream into an additional package.

A petition is asking that same question while encouraging toothpaste manufacturers to ditch the cardboard box.

Toothpaste boxes are 'useless'

The video above comes courtesy of Alan's Theory, a series of videos by a man named Alan who "thinks a lot," makes videos about his thoughts and puts them on Facebook and YouTube. Alan's only been doing these videos for a couple of months, but his toothpaste-box video is already his most-watched on Facebook with 4.8 million views. In it, he asks why in the world toothpaste comes in cardboard boxes that are only going to be thrown away or — at best — recycled.

He explains that 900 million boxes of toothpaste are produced a year — his sourcing for this information, which isn't supplied in the video, is likely this Quora post, and its answer is based on a 2007 blog post. He says that it just seems particularly wasteful to do this on such a large scale for a product that doesn't require additional packaging. Perhaps it's because the packaging looks good on the shelf.

The video cuts to Iceland, where 90 percent of toothpaste is sold without a box, Alan says, though he doesn't cite a source for that statistic. The video shows store shelves with toothpaste tubes standing upright, held secure by a plastic tray in a branded cardboard box. Alan says this presentation is driven by the environmental awareness of Icelandic consumers, and he films Icelanders giving reasons to the camera.

Alan then encourages consumers to reach out to people they know in the toothpaste industry, to share his video with them and to sign the petition aimed at toothpaste manufacturers and individual brands as well as organizations like the United Nations and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Recycling the tubes and toothpaste alternatives

A family brushes their teeth together in front of a bathroom mirror
Routine brushing helps keep your teeth healthy, and there are ways to do it that minimize harm to the environment. bbernard/Shutterstock

Toothpaste boxes do look good on the shelf, and it's almost certainly easier to package, ship and stock toothpaste that way. In the 1995 book "Waste Age and Recycling Times: Recycling Handbook," the editor explains that toothpaste boxes provide information about the product, serve a marketing function, protect the tube and prevent theft. The book also says the boxes are "often made from recycled paperboard," providing a market for wastepaper in addition to packaging for a tube.

It still seems wasteful, however. If corporations have found ways to make it work for a relatively small market — Iceland's population is around 350,000, per Iceland Magazine — scaling up such a process wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility, with a slow rollout to help consumers adjust to the new packaging.

Tackling the packaging of toothpaste is the low-hanging fruit of the discussion, however. Eliminating the packaging doesn't solve the fact that, using Alan's number, 900 million plastic tubes are going into landfills. It's doubtful that eliminating the packaging would offset the damage done by the tubes themselves after we've squeezed as much as we can out of them.

You can recycle the tubes (and your toothbrushes, for that matter), but it's not easy. Since products have to be cleaned before they can be recycled — this is why you can't recycle a cheese-riddled pizza box — it's unlikely you can just toss the tube in your city's recycling bin with wastepaper and glass bottles. There's still toothpaste stuck inside the tube, after all. Plus, toothpaste tubes are often more than one type of material fused together, and that requires special machinery to separate them.

For a number of years now, however, Colgate and TerraCycle have worked together, offering a recycling service for all toothpaste tubes — any brand! — and toothbrushes. The irony in all this, of course, is that you have to put the tubes back into a box or envelope and mail them to the recycling location. Packaging, like life, always finds a way.

So what can you do if you really want to clean your teeth and keep the environment clean, too? Well, you can make your own toothpaste — MNN has three recipes for DIY toothpastes that are easy to make — and cut out the tubes and the unnecessary packaging entirely. Alternatives like like baking soda, charcoal, types of clay and even cinnamon can help, but they also have downsides.

You could also try something like Bite, a toothpaste-pill delivery service focused on making toothpaste healthier and more sustainable. You bite down on a cube, then brush with a wet toothbrush. Foamy toothpaste goodness occurs. The pills come in a recyclable glass jar and all the mail packaging is recyclable as well.

Whatever you do to green your oral hygiene, please keep brushing your teeth.