Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reply from Tom's of Maine

Last week I received a response from Tom's of Maine to my letter of June 9 about their switch to plastic toothpaste tubes. Reprinted here in full (scroll to read):

June 16, 2011

Dear Harold,

Thank you for your letter -- not only for your commitment to the environment and sustainability, but also for your willingness to share your concerns. Although we are unhappy to hear you are disappointed with our new toothpaste tube material, we do track consumer comments closely, and are especially interested to hear how our valued users feel about this new packaging.

As you can probably imagine, switching to our new laminate tube was a very big decision for us. The aluminum tubes had been a part of our company for over 40 years, and we only made the decision to switch after giving the subject lengthy, holistic consideration. This included commissioning an environmental study from the University of Michigan which compared the environmental impact of the old aluminum tube vs. the new laminate material. The results were presented in terms of life-cycle energy, greenhouse gas emissions, acidification potential, carcinogen production, eutrophication, solid waste, and air and water emissions and indicated that in general, the old aluminum tubes had two to three times greater environmental impact than the laminate tube.

That being said, we recognize that these laminate tubes are not a perfect option. Although the tubes are recyclable as #7 plastic, we share your concern about them ending up in the trash. We've identified a partner who will recycle and reuse the material as packaging products and are currently inviting consumers with limited recycling options to save up their tubes and return them back to us. We are happy to reimburse any postage paid with new Tom's product. We are also investigating additional ways to make it easier for consumers to return these tubes back to us here in Maine.

The sustainability of our packaging is a critical component of our Stewardship Model. We originally chose aluminum because of this commitment, and kept it as a primary consideration in making the change to laminate. But we are actively interested in opportunities to improve this sustainability, and believe that consumers such as you may be our greatest resource. We appreciate your feedback, and if you uncover additional relevant research or potential packaging options, we hope you will pass them our way!

In fact, seeing as that you live just up the coast, we'd be more than happy to meet with you in person to discuss this further -- either now or in the future.

Thank you again for your feedback. We wish you the best of health!

Bridget M. Burns
Citizen's Advocacy Representative

My open response.

Dear Ms. Burns,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply. But you've missed the thrust. My concern isn't plastic ending up in trash; it's plastic ending up in the ocean. Ever more of it. Which is happening now. Today. You asked for research. I've just completed a year-long survey of the pollution reaching my Bay View beach in Saco. Of the 8,456 pieces of litter & garbage left behind or washed in, 78-80% were plastic. Persistent plastic that doesn't go away. Ever.

Your old material, aluminum, is a closable loop. Even food-fouled aluminum can be melted, the dross skimmed off, and the aluminum placed back on shelves in weeks. Better still, it can even be recovered from landfills, often at percentages higher than from freshly mined bauxite ore.

The plastic in your new laminate isn't a closable loop. It's a downward spiral, requiring virgin plastic to replace what is bought from store shelves. Depending on whether Tom's is willing to pay a premium for partially-recycled product, you are using anywhere from 60 to 100% virgin plastic in each tube. (Information gathered from this article on plastic barrier laminate.) Your switch adds to our modern addiction to more, ever more, virgin plastic.

And much of it will get littered, one way or another, despite anyone's good intentions.

Littered aluminum degrades back to the stuff of soil & bedrock. Plastic doesn't. It persists. For centuries. Plastics also accumulate -- and leach -- toxins. Plastics foul pristine beaches and fill the bellies of animals that have never seen a human being, killing them through poison or starvation.
This plastic all came from the gut of ONE dead sea turtle
(from http://www.seaturtle.org)
Does your environmental report consider end-of-life factors like this? If not, it's incomplete. There's also the light-weighting argument for plastic over aluminum. Let's assume that a filled aluminum tube really is significantly heavier than a filled plastic tube. Does the report consider the entire supply stream (and carbon footprint) of virgin plastic, from synthesis to pellets to formulation to shipping? Or the excellent closed-loop recyclability of aluminum? Or the supply stream & footprint of that recycled aluminum? After all, there are many aluminum foundries in New England alone, practically in Tom's back yard.

If, after all that, plastic still seems cheaper on the front end, please look again at that photograph above. That's what the end of the plastic life cycle looks like. That is not science fiction, or melodrama. That is today.

So, again, Tom's of Maine, I believe you care. And that you want to do good while doing well. But this change to plastic toothpaste tubes is the wrong choice. It will leave its legacy swirling around our oceans, and washing up on our shores, for lifetimes to come.

Please be a true leader, and buck the plastic trend.


  1. NICE!!!!! Well put... wow wow wow. High 10 to that.

  2. Good job! If only 5% of #1 Plastic bottles are down-cycled, #7 plastics are ABSOLUTELY NOT RECYCLED AT ALL! Who are they fooling?

  3. True, there's just about zero market for #7s, because it's such a mix & muddle of plastic. There was a time when China would buy the occasional container load (probably just to burn back home in open air pits as Stiv mentions in his 5 Gyres post). Not exactly a happy ending/closed loop!

    Tom's says they have a place that will take their tubes & reuse them. It's hard to picture a business taking the time to slice open toothpaste tubes, scrape out the gunk, then melt the slurry back down into anything useful for a second run. If there -is- such a company, good on them for trying. But I can't see any scenario where it will make any meaningful difference in the waste stream.

    And of course, whatever that company -does- recycle will eventually be junk itself, which could just as easily escape into the oceans. It's just a bad idea.

  4. Bravo for corresponding with Tom's and carrying forth a factual argument. On the plus side at least some companies do listen! And some companies are making efforts to be ecologically responsible to some degree. Consumers can have a huge influence not just by their purchase choices, but by communicating with the product companies as you are doing.
    Thank You for helping to change the world for the better.
    Bernie @ www.litterwithastorytotell.blogspot.com

  5. My sister, from www.houseBehindtheotherhouses.blogspot.com, has opened my eyes to this problem, and to your wonderful blog. We are doing what we can, but I commend you and others for being so diligent! Great post.

  6. Great meeting you Martha, and thanks for such a nice comment! It's funny, for years I never really noticed the stuff flittering about the ground. It was kind of background noise, like telephone poles. Now I see it everywhere. Sometimes I wish I didn't, but usually I'm glad to be aware of it -- it gives me the drive to keep trying to make a difference.

    Bernie, my bad for not writing back sooner to you too. Thanks for the comment, and you're so right. There are good companies out there who will do the right thing if they get serious feedback from the folks they do business with. I like a lot about Tom's of Maine, hopefully these notes won't fall on deaf ears.