When it comes to eco-friendliness, toothpaste packaging has an important role to play.
But it isn’t always obvious which option is the best overall, and there is a lack of studies comparing them.
The two most important things are actually using minimal water when brushing and recycling your packaging appropriately.
At the moment, due to a lack of studies, it’s hard to say which is the most eco-friendly type of packaging.
Based on my research, the two main choices are toothpaste tablets and new HDPE recyclable toothpaste tubes.
In some ways the new style HDPE toothpaste tubes may be a better option as they fit into existing recycling schemes and balance affordability with an eco-friendly option.
But there are pros and cons to both, which I have covered here.
There isn’t a one size fits all answer
In this post I’ll be looking at various eco-friendly toothpaste options.
‘Zero waste’ is a concept that has become popular when it comes to buying eco-friendly products, but there are few truly zero-waste toothpaste options. In fact, all toothpaste has some sort of packaging.
Changing the packaging that your toothpaste comes in will have an impact on the overall carbon footprint of your toothpaste.
However, there is no one size fits all answer. And what may at first appear to be more environmentally friendly may not actually be so.
Firstly, because what is easily recyclable in one part of the world may not be so in others. Secondly, changing things like packaging can have unintended consequences such as wasted product.
Overall, there is a lack of evidence around how packaging affects toothpaste and which types of toothpaste are best for the environment.
Sometimes conventional wisdom can be incorrect, and so some of the assumptions about eco-friendly toothpaste can be inaccurate. What seems like it is better for the environment, and what is actually better (as supported by evidence) doesn’t always add up to the same thing.
However I will try to outline the situation around toothpaste sustainability, and help you to choose a toothpaste that’s right for you.
Some types of eco-friendly toothpaste for you to consider
I’ll start off with a list of options based on the research included in the section on toothpaste packaging.
These are not definitively ‘the best’ options, but suggestions based on the research included below.
At the moment, the best option to choose between are probably toothpaste tablets, and new recyclable HDPE tubes.
Equally as important as changing the packaging of your toothpaste is to reduce your toothpaste wastage, which I’ve also included a guide for later in the article.
As I explain later in the article, there is a lack of evidence to support this for sure, but it’s possible that toothpaste tablets are the most sustainable option.
We’ve tested a range of these and list some options in our best toothpaste tablets article. Below are some good options that come with fluoride.
Pop Tabs are manufactured in New Zealand (but with shipping to Australia available) and include fluoride.
Suitable for vegans, palm oil free and cruelty free too, these are another great choice for a zero waste approach to your oral care.
Unfortunately, there appears not to be a refill option, only the choice of buying a complete new tin each time, which is a shame.
Denttabs are another good choice, you can order a 2 month supply from Eco Patch.
Recyclable toothpaste tubes
The newly developed “Greenleaf” tube is made by Albea and is a 100% plastic tube which can be recycled in existing facilities — you can put it in with other items for your recycling collection.
It was researched and developed with Colgate-Palmolive, although it is also being used by other brands.
Currently it is only available from some brands and for some toothpastes.
A list of toothpastes that use the Albea Greenleaf recyclable tube
Below is a list of toothpastes that we are aware of that use the Albea Greenleaf recyclable tube.
We will update this periodically as more brands start to use the new tube. If there are any we’ve missed, please let us know in the comments.
- Colgate Smile For Good (Ebay, Chemist Warehouse)
- The Humble Co (Hello Charlie)
- Tom’s of Maine (Chemist Warehouse)
Please beware that older stock may still exist, so if you buy one of these you should still check the back of the tube for one of the logos from our post on recycling toothpaste tubes.
Solid toothpaste bars
Another possible eco-friendly alternative to traditional toothpaste is solid toothpaste, in the form of a bar.
Like with toothpaste tablets, this can reduce the amount of water the toothpaste contains.
Lemon & sage solid toothpaste from Lamazuna
One option I am testing at the moment is made by Lamazuna and available from Pacific Scents. I will update with my own comments when I’ve finished testing.
The downside to this one is that it doesn’t contain fluoride.
There was also some criticism of it from a reviewer on Planet Organic, which is a UK site that also sells it:
I hate giving bad reviews but this toothpaste is a complete failure. One – you have to use hot water to get the toothpaste off the compressed stick – that means either boiling the kettle or using hot water from the tap – that’s hot water that’s been sat in a tank and not what you’d want to be ingesting. Then, once you got your hot water – the toothpaste still doesn’t get on the brush properly – I really wanted this to work, but it was like not cleaning my teeth at all.
As I discover and test more options, I will add and comment on them.
The only true zero waste option for toothpaste is to use an existing container that you own and to take this somewhere to be refilled.
In a similar concept, some companies are beginning to offer a closed loop system, where you send the packaging back to them in exchange for a new full package.
You could try local zero waste stores where you can take your own container and refill from their bulk supplies.
Reusable Nation is a good place to start when looking for a local zero waste store in Australia.
Refillable toothpaste packaging can come in various forms, and some are better than others.
At the moment the main options seem to be refillable tubes and glass jars — I have commented on both below.
Boca — refillable tubes
Boca Refill UK is a toothpaste manufacturer that supplies tube refills (they are currently running a trial in the UK).
After your initial shipment, refills are sent to you in compostable containers. The refills are then inserted into the tube sent to you in your initial shipment.
At the moment I cannot find an equivalent example for Australia, but I have included it anyway as an example of what is possible.
Refillable glass jars aren’t good if you need to send them back and forth.
Refillable packaging such as jars could be a good option if you can find a way to refill them locally, and use jars that you already own.
If the jars are made of glass and need to be sent back and forth or re-ordered they probably aren’t such a good option because glass is heavy in comparison to the other options listed above.
So while they may seem like a good zero-waste option because you’re not throwing something in the bin, their impact comes from them being heavier to transport.
Toothpaste tablets might be the most eco-friendly option
It’s possible that toothpaste tablets are the most eco-friendly toothpaste option, but more research is needed.
Toothpaste tablets can have a number of benefits compared to traditional toothpaste.
It is estimated that toothpaste is around 50% water. By eliminating water the tablet form is lighter weight per portion, reducing emissions during transport.
Potentially this means less water usage when making the tablets compared to the paste.
Of course it is not just about the weight of the toothpaste during transport. There are multiple factors that feed into the environmental impact of toothpaste.
Reducing water in toothpaste is also important as water scarcity puts additional pressure on the environment in many parts of the world.
Water has very high energy consumption from making it safe to drink, and from safe disposal after use before it returns to the water systems. It is impossible to calculate a number used for toothpaste manufacture and disposal, but reducing water consumption will have a positive impact.
Eliminating water also means a smaller volume per dose. So one portion of fluoride in tablet form is smaller than the volume in a paste. Overall, packages can be smaller.
As well as less packaging for the same number of portions, packages for toothpaste tablets are easier to recycle than traditional toothpaste tubes. Traditional tubes are not recycled with mainstream recycling, although some specialist schemes do exist. Toothpaste tablets come in easier to recycle packaging. There are many different options available including compostable packets, paper bags, and glass jars.
Toothpaste tablets have the added bonus of being dosed correctly so there is no wastage of toothpaste from using too much. In a traditional toothpaste tube, about 10% of the paste is unusable as you cannot get it out of the tube. This is wasteful. This wastage does not occur with toothpaste tablets as they can be effectively removed from the packaging.
There is only a small amount of evidence around the environmental impact of toothpaste tablets. Some previous research looked at where improvements could be made in toothpaste production and packaging. They found that reducing the packaging by 20% has much less of an impact than reducing the material weight by 20%. This would support the use of lighter weight toothpaste tablet products:
It also shows how lightweight packaging potentially offers significant advantages over glass jars, for example. Toothpaste tablets can use lightweight plastic free packaging (e.g. paper), reducing the reliance on single use plastics.
We can acknowledge these positives from using toothpaste tablets, but must also recognise there is little evidence to directly support them.
Also, what is right for one person in one part of the world may not be the best option for you if you live elsewhere.
If you are interested in toothpaste tablets we have listed some options above, and go into more detail in our article on the best toothpaste tablets.
New recyclable toothpaste tubes are an alternative to tablets
I don’t believe toothpaste tablets are a magic fix. Yes, they can be plastic free. But that is not the only way the environmental impact can be lessened.
Not everybody enjoys the sensation or taste of toothpaste tablets. At the present time, they are also not that cheap.
So can you go for an alternative? Yes.
I would say the likes of the new HDPE toothpaste tubes are a feasible alternative. They are more affordable than toothpaste tablets, although they are still more expensive than regular toothpaste.
As brands use more of them, the most common toothpastes will have this packaging, and it will become cheaper.
They will be convenient as they will be available in stores where you normally buy toothpaste. They are also easily recyclable — they can be put in your normal household recycling collection.
Toothpaste tablets vs recyclable tubes — pros and cons
As I’ve mentioned above, toothpaste tablets and new recyclable toothpaste tubes are probably the two most eco-friendly toothpaste options.
Without further studies it’s not possible to say which of the two has the least environmental impact.
If you’re choosing between the two, here is a quick comparison of the pros and cons:
- Toothpaste tablets tend to be more expensive
- Recyclable tubes are still expensive compared to regular toothpaste
- The texture of toothpaste tablets can be off-putting
- Many toothpaste tablets come without fluoride
- Many toothpaste tablets come in glass jars, which are heavy to transport
- Recyclable toothpaste tubes are still made of virgin plastic
- Toothpaste tablets are available from a variety of brands
- Recyclable toothpaste tubes are currently only available from Colgate and Tom’s of Maine
- Recyclable tubes are an option for those that won’t switch from using traditional toothpaste options
- Toothpaste tablets tend to be made by smaller companies, which can have a tighter control on their environmental footprint
- Recyclable toothpaste tubes are used by larger companies like Colgate, which doesn’t have a great environmental record
- Some toothpaste tablets are supplied by small retailers who are trying to have a positive impact on the planet
Big brands vs small brands
Something else you may wish to factor into your decision is the brand you choose to buy from.
Some of the emerging brands making alternative forms of toothpaste are smaller companies and seem to be more environmentally-conscious than the large multinationals that currently dominate oral health care.
Colgate’s recyclable toothpaste tube is a step in the right direction but has been criticised as greenwashing by some.
Whilst we are in support of packaging and products that reduce the environmental impact of oral healthcare, we do not agree with companies that have poor environmental credentials in other areas.
Ultimately you need to choose the right toothpaste for your personal situation, and buy from a brand you are comfortable with.
How toothpaste packaging affects the planet
Strictly speaking, there are very few zero waste options when it comes to toothpaste.
And without life cycle assessments we don’t know which option is the best.
But even with a lack of evidence we can assume less packaging is going to be an improvement on excessive packaging.
Options available include:
- Redeveloping traditional tubes so that they are recyclable
- Swapping packaging to lightweight recyclable materials such as paper kraft bags and aluminium tins
- Swapping packaging to materials that are reusable, such as glass jars.
- Getting your toothpaste (tablets/paste etc ) from bulk refill shops where you bring your own packaging.
Why traditional toothpaste tubes are a problem
Toothpaste traditionally comes in squeezable tubes.
These laminate tubes are made of a layer of aluminium with plastic fused to it on both sides. The resin on the inside prevents the contents reacting with the alumunium. The polyester paint on the outside is fully flexible and allows information to be printed on the tube which remains visible even when the tube is twisted.
The problem with these is that it is very difficult to then separate the materials again. This makes toothpaste tubes a challenge to recycle with other household waste.
For more information check out our article: can toothpaste tubes be recycled?
A new recyclable toothpaste tube launched recently
The newly developed “Greenleaf” tube is made by Albea and is a 100% plastic tube which can be recycled in existing facilities — you can put it in with your other household recycling.
It was researched and developed with Colgate-Palmolive, although it is also being used by other brands. GSK (Sensodyne, parodontax, aquafresh) have also pledged to use the new packaging, with the hope that over a billion toothpaste tubes per year will be recyclable by 2025. Proctor & Gamble, who make Crest and Oral-B, have also started using the new tubes. They aim to have full conversion by 2025 for the US and Europe.
The new tube is made of one material: Plastic number 2, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), one of the most widely recycled. Recycled HDPE can be turned into all kinds of new things, including construction materials and new packaging.
The greatest benefit is that although the tube is a new design, the required recycling facilities already exist. This works well for managing end-of-life waste, which is one of the biggest areas for environmental burden.
The new tube requires little effort when it comes to changing habits, and people like the familiarity of a tube.
Although these tubes are an improvement on what is already available, they do not solve the problem when it comes to our reliance on single use plastics. The same raw materials are needed. A significant improvement would be using recycled plastic to make the new tubes.
Toothpastes currently available in this new packaging are listed in the section above.
Some toothpaste tablets come in plastic-free, lightweight packaging
Toothpaste tablets are available in paper bags and aluminium tins. These lightweight packaging options should reduce fuel usage during transport, and are easily recyclable across the world.
There aren’t any studies yet to directly compare toothpaste tablets in this sort of packaging to conventional toothpaste tubes, so it is difficult to be certain.
But removing the reliance on laminate tubes means less new plastic being made, and fewer unrecyclable tubes to dispose of.
It’s unclear how this packaging would fare in comparison to the new style recyclable plastic tubes, which are also lightweight.
Refillable glass jars aren’t necessarily better
Some toothpastes come in heavier duty packaging.
It is common for “eco-friendly” pastes and powders to come in glass jars.
Again, there is no evidence comparing these materials against each other. This means we can’t say definitively that they are better or worse.
There’s no information about why companies choose glass jars over other types of packaging, but from personal experience I find that toothpaste tablets tend to go soft if they aren’t kept in an airtight container. A paste can also dry out.
Additionally, without protection from a hard cover, toothpaste tablets can also be damaged in transit. Toothpaste is normally considered to be an over-the-counter medicine due to the fact that it contains fluoride. It is sometimes easy to forget this because it is so widely available. But the point is that it is something which needs to be protected when in transit.
Maintaining the quality of the product may be one reason why these options are sent in glass jars rather than softer packaging. Sometimes the refills come in more lightweight packaging and can then be decanted.
But glass is heavier to transport, which will increase fuel consumption. It also requires padding out to prevent breakage.
Whilst there is no evidence specific to toothpaste, there have been studies comparing plastic and glass packaging for other products. One study looked at milk, and found recycled PET (plastic) bottles to have a less negative effect on the environment than glass.
One positive with glass jars is that they can be repurposed when you are finished with them. Glass is also easily recyclable when you no longer have a purpose for the jar.
Overall, considering lack of evidence, I am unsure if this zero waste option is any better than other materials.
How to make your toothpaste use more eco-friendly (and save money!)
Talk to anyone who is interested in living a sustainable lifestyle, and they will tell you that it’s not just about buying new products. In fact, the most sustainable thing you can do is use up what you already have.
There are a few changes you could make to make your toothpaste more environmentally friendly, without even changing your paste.
Turn the tap off
Toothpaste was one of three items specifically investigated in a 2019 study of Environmental Impacts Of Healthcare And Pharmaceutical Products.
They found that one of the biggest environmental impacts from toothpaste actually came from how it is used at home. Specifically, whether or not the tap is left running whilst brushing your teeth.
They state the impact of manufacturing toothpaste, up to the point it is stored at a warehouse is 0.36 kg CO2. For comparison use and disposal for warm water tap running is 3.65 kg CO2. Use and disposal for 0.09 kg CO2.
What this tells us is that yes, choosing a paste with less packaging may have some benefit when it comes to carbon footprint, but this pales in comparison to habits of using toothpaste.
In fact, by minimising water wastage and turning the tap off, the impact of toothpaste was reduced by 57 times!
The study excluded the manufacturing and transport stages. They also made assumptions regarding waste disposal and the percentage of material that is recycled. These are based on data from 2015, and it is unclear how things might have changed since then.
When looking at the environmental impact of toothpaste , the majority of the burden actually comes from water usage e.g. heating of water if warm water is used, and the treatment of any waste water. In fact, the water usage has a greater impact than the disposal of the packaging at end-of-life.
Use the correct dose
Using the correct amount of toothpaste will make a tube of toothpaste last longer. Did you know you only need a pea sized amount of toothpaste? For children, it is even less.
Any more than that will not have any benefit for your dental health.
Images often show long smears of toothpaste. This is inaccurate, and only helps the manufacturers encourage you to buy more paste!
Use all the paste
It seems obvious, but make sure you completely finish your tube (or other container) of toothpaste.
Using a toothpaste tube squeezer can help make sure you get all the paste out of your tube.
How to make your choice of toothpaste more eco-friendly
Eco friendly or sustainable means different things to different people.
There are a few different things you could focus on to choose a toothpaste that is more eco-friendly than traditional pastes:
- How you use the toothpaste – don’t use more than you need, use all the paste from the tube (e.g. by using a toothpaste tube squeezer), and prevent water wastage whilst brushing.
- Choosing a toothpaste with minimal packaging – for example a “zero waste” option or where packaging can be recycled or reused rather than going to landfill.
- Choosing a more “natural” toothpaste with minimal ingredients (read more about that here). Also picking toothpastes that are vegan and/or organic.
- Choosing a toothpaste from a company that looks to protect the environment and the people it employs (an ethical company).
It is important to note that the only way you can really decide whether something has a lower impact on the environment is by doing a life cycle assessment (LCA). These are usually done by the companies that make the product, following strict international criteria (ISO 14040/44).
Unfortunately there are very few of these studies done and even fewer of them are released in full to the general public. Where possible we will update as more information becomes available.
Other ways to make your toothpaste more eco-friendly
We have already looked at different packaging available for toothpaste. Whether you choose a toothpaste in a tube of toothpaste tablets (or anything else) there are a few other things you could think about when trying to pick a sustainable option for your toothpaste.
Other things you could consider to make your toothpaste a more environmentally friendly choice
Go palm oil free, or opt for responsibly sourced palm oil
- Problem: palm oil is associated with deforestation of rainforests and lack of (plant and animal) diversity. Mono crops lead to an increase in the release of greenhouse gases.
- Palm oil can be a hidden ingredient (see alternative names here).
- Opt for RSPO – responsibly sourced palm oil or palm oil free.
Ensure your toothpaste is free from microplastics
- Microplastic beads can have a significant negative effect on the environment, as we explain in our article on toothpaste ingredients. They can filter into the water and affect marine life.
- Microplastic beads in cosmetics are banned in many parts of the world, including the UK and the US. Microplastic beads aren’t banned in Australia, so may be present in your toothpaste.
Choose vegan/cruelty free products
- Vegan products do not use animal derived ingredients and cruelty free products do not test on animals
- It is generally accepted that raising animals is resource intensive and has a negative effect on the environment.
- Non vegan ingredients include: glycerin, propolis, vague terms like coloring and aroma
Choose organic ingredients
- Generally, organic labelling requires the manufacturer meets stricter environmental controls when growing ingredients.
- The Cornucopia Institute has assessed the % of organic ingredients for many toothpastes. Be aware that they score higher for pastes without fluoride, which is not recommended by dental professionals.
Choose an ethical brand
- An ethical brand will have clear environmental policies. Whilst their products may not be perfect they are driving change in the right direction.
- Avoid companies which are greenwashing – using environmentally friendly terminology for their own financial gain, without actually having a positive impact.
DIY toothpaste is NOT a good way to reduce waste
I do not recommend using homemade toothpaste.
It is not a good way to reduce your waste.
There is no evidence to support the fact that homemade toothpaste is environmentally friendly. But a recent study has talked about the risks of various DIY toothpaste recipes.
There is more detail about the potential problems in our article on homemade toothpaste, but the key points are that homemade toothpaste lacks the fluoride you need to protect your teeth against cavities.
Ultimately, if you avoid fluoride and develop cavities, you will end up using far more plastic having treatment than which would have been used for regular toothpaste!
Homemade toothpastes aren’t scientifically measured and it is difficult to know the exact quantities of the final paste. Additionally, some ingredients have the potential to cause harm to the teeth and gums – from tooth wear, to swallowing lead.
Because of the large number of ingredients in most DIY toothpaste recipes, you can also end up with a fair amount of packaging. And some ingredients may go to waste if they go off before they can be fully used.