Thursday, June 9, 2011

An Open Letter to Tom's of Maine

A couple months ago, a strange confluence occurred. First, I noticed that Tom's of Maine had changed their toothpaste tubes from aluminum to plastic. Shortly afterward, I found an aluminum tube washed up on my beach. It was already rotting back to nothing, which a plastic tube will never do.

So, an open letter to Tom's of Maine (a copy also sent directly to the Consumer Dialogue Dept.):

June 9, 2011

Tom’s of Maine Consumer Dialogue Department
302 Lafayette Center
Kennebunk, ME 04043

I wanted to show you something that washed up on my beach in Saco, Maine April 25 this year.
This is an aluminum toothpaste tube. It wasn’t littered by a beachgoer, or tossed out a car window. That’s not what happens to toothpaste tubes. It was thrown in the trash, and somehow managed to get into the ocean. That’s what litter does. Always has, always will. But notice: This aluminum tube is already disintegrating back to nature. It is becoming aluminum oxide, the stuff of soil that the world has evolved with over billions of years. In months it will disintegrate and be gone.

Your new plastic toothpaste tubes never do this. When littered into the environment -- as they will be -- they’ll persist. Nothing in nature knows how to return plastic to its building blocks. Your new tubes will run down gulleys, then rivers, eventually the ocean. There they will remain plastic. Even as they photodegrade into small bits, they’re still plastic. They will float, collecting in one of the massive gyres of plastic soup now swirling far from land. There, they will either get ingested by a sea animal, get stuck, and starve it to death... Or accumulate toxins to ~100,000 times background levels, killing more quickly... Or be spit back onto someone’s shore, perhaps distant, perhaps somewhere on the Maine coast, fouling it.

This is the result of our plastic world:
One of 1000s of albatross on Midway who died eating plastic
This has happened in just a couple generations. Under our nose and on our watch. Environmental studies claiming plastic as a better alternative are fundamentally flawed. They don’t account for pollution or persistence. Or the poor recyclability. Aluminum is melted down; impurities are easily skimmed off, and the aluminum can be back on the shelf in weeks. A truly closed loop. Plastic cannot be superheated to sterilize. It must be clean to be processed, which is why major recyclers don’t accept plastic toothpaste tubes. Your take-back scheme, though laudable, only downcycles the waste. And as few consumers will spend money to return your tubes to you, most tubes you sell have a one-way trip to the landfill... or the ocean.

I believe that Tom’s of Maine is genuinely forward-thinking, ecologically responsible. I believe that you have switched to plastic thinking that you are doing a good thing. You are not. You have been misled, and the pollution that your new products will cause will just add to the persistent ecological disaster of our times. Please be a true leader and buck the plastic tide.

Thanks for your time.

Harold Johnson
The Flotsam Diaries


  1. Thank You for writing to the company (Tom's of Maine). Our voices can influence change for the better. Pls post their response when you receive one.
    If you see litter in a business parking lot, pls. consider communicating to that business the opportunity they have to improve their facade and help our environment by cleaning up their parking lot on a year round basis.
    Bernie Paquette

  2. Very cool to see someone write such a nicely worded and reasonable sounding letter! I hope you get a response!

  3. Thank you both for the nice comments! Bernie, yours is a good suggestion; we've all got a role to play -- the consumers are asked to do their part, the producers should be stepping up & doing it too.

  4. Hi Harry, this is a comment regarding the blog as a whole. I must say this is truly inspirational stuff! I have been following you on Twitter for a few weeks now (I'm @SomersetCoast) but until today haven't had the chance to read over your blog, and still haven't gone through it all. The work you are doing fills me with hope that others can set up sub-diaries of their own where they also dedicate time to collecting litter from the beaches. Unfortunately, despite my Twitter handle, I don't currently live near enough to a coastline to pay a visit on a regular basis. When I am at the coast it's largely work based and therefore related to coastal adaptation to sea level rise (also a worthy cause!). However, my contract ends in November and I am planning a move to Pembrokeshire in west Wales. I would love to set up a similar blog where I collect what I find on what will be the opposite side of the Altantic; the receiving end of the Gulf Stream. I haven't looked through any comments yet, but imagine others are quite possibly already doing this, but if I can contribute in any way I would love to offer my time and support.

  5. What a wonderful thing to write, thank you so much! It was always my hope that what I'm trying to do here would reach out and inspire other folks to take a different look at their world. I've been humbled by the people & organizations I've learned about, all trying to make a difference. I'll bet fascinating stuff washes up in Pembrokeshire; if you do start collecting & blogging I would love to see what you're finding. A blogger in Wales contacted me last year when he found a Maine lobster trap tag washed up on his shore. Such a small world!

    In the meantime, I'm also really enjoying your blog. Many of the same themes are happening here on our east coast -- decisions about how to respond as the sea rises, whether sea walls help or hurt; whether "managed retreat" is the best choice, etc. It's great seeing a perspective from across the ocean.

    Do you know about the Two Hands Project? ( It's such a simple idea -- that cleanups don't have to be big, international blowouts; it can be individuals using their own two hands and 20 or 30 minutes to make the world a better place. Any time I get down in the dumps about litter, pollution, etc., it's a great reminder that there are people all over the world making a difference.