Your Colgate Toothpaste Might Not Be as Green as You Thought, Class Action Says

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Colgate-Palmolive Faces Lawsuit Alleging The Company Misleads Consumers That Its Toothpaste Tubes Can Be Recycled

The box might have the three chasing arrows in a triangle, but that doesn’t mean Tom’s of Maine toothpaste — or a number of other Colgate teeth cleaning products for that matter — can be tossed in the recycling bin, customers say. 

A judge has sided with those customers, ruling that Colgate can’t throw out a class action lawsuit alleging it breaks false advertising and consumer protection laws, and must instead face the claims in the courtroom, Reuters reports.

Colgate can’t wash the case away

In San Francisco, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero rejected Colgate's attempt to dismiss the proposed class action in which California locals claim the company lies to consumers about the recyclability of Tom’s of Maine and other Colgate-branded toothpaste tubes. 

The judge called Colgate’s dismissal arguments “unpersuasive,” adding customers sufficiently argued they were tricked by the company’s packaging. Spero said that while the tubes may technically be recyclable due to their materials, customers had convincingly claimed Colgate led them to believe the tubes are physically recycled, not just capable of being recycled, which in fact they are not. Recycling centers reject them for more than one reason.

What's really going on with those toothpaste tubes?

Plaintiffs Roman Weingartner and Kristin Della first filed the proposed class action lawsuit in California last year claiming that Colgate-Palmolive Company used “unlawful, unfair, and deceptive business practices” with its advertising, marketing, and sale of Colgate and Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. 

They claim the “Recyclable Tube,” “First of Its Kind Recyclable Tube,” and universal recycling symbol labels on the product boxes are just there to capitalize on consumer demand for “green” products, and have no bearing on actual environmental sustainability. Colgate, they claim, “misleadingly markets the products to increase profits and gain a competitive edge” and the company has raked in the profit since kicking off its recyclable claims. 

Both Weingartner and Della say they bought Tom’s of Maine toothpaste with the aim of recycling the tubes, only to find recycling facilities don’t accept them. The facilities say they can’t distinguish between the purportedly recyclable tubes and conventional toothpaste tubes, and that the tubes cannot be fully emptied which means the leftover toothpaste contaminates the recyclable waste stream. The lawsuit says this “makes the toothpastes unrecyclable and jeopardizes the recyclability of truly recyclable materials.”

Recyclable in theory, but what about in practice?

Colgate says in 2019 it started making the transition to recyclable tubes, which are made entirely out of HDPE plastic and can be recycled unlike traditional tubes that are made from sheets of plastic laminate. However, the company admits it needs to work on getting the tubes accepted at recycling facilities, the lawsuit claims, citing a video where Colgate says it is continuing to “work beyond technically recyclable toward acceptance of tubes in recycling centers globally.” 

“In reality, the purported innovation is a total flop. Although the product was designed to be theoretically recyclable, in practice, recycling facilities do not accept the redesigned tubes. Accordingly, they are not, in fact, recyclable,” the lawsuit argues. “Defendant’s representations that the products are recyclable are thereby material, false, misleading and likely to deceive members of the public.”

Greenwashing in the spotlight

Consumers have become increasingly concerned about the impacts of their consumption on the environment, research shows. In turn, consumer laws focused on environmental marketing have been introduced to protect shoppers from false or misleading claims companies make about the environmental benefits of their products or services, also called “greenwashing.” 

The Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Claims, aka the Green Guides, reject a definition of “recyclable” based on theoretical recyclability, and say to be deemed recyclable, a product must actually be able to be accepted by recycling programs.

Both Weingartner and Della say in the lawsuit they want to buy Colgate’s toothpaste tubes if they become truly recyclable, but as things stand they say they have “no way of determining whether the recyclability representations are in fact true.” Using the lawsuit, they say they want to force the company to be transparent. 

Colgate has had to pay up in the past

If they pair are successful, it won’t be the first time Colgate has had to pay up for breaching customer trust in recent years. Last year, the company reached a $1.9 million settlement with consumers over claims its Fabuloso products had low preservative levels that could cause bacterial growth. The products were the subject of a recall

Meanwhile, Colgate is also facing a class action lawsuit alleging it conspired with vets to dissuade customers from buying pet food from small, independent brands.

In this proposed Colgate toothpaste class action lawsuit, the consumers are alleging violations of the California Consumers Legal Remedies Act; False Advertising, Business and Professions Code; Fraud, Deceit and Misrepresentation; Negligent Misrepresentation; and Unfair, Unlawful and Deceptive Trade Practices. They are asking for damages, restitution, and statutory penalties, as well as an injunction precluding the sale of the toothpaste tubes unless the packaging and marketing is modified.

The plaintiffs are represented by Seth A. Safier, Marie McCrary, and Rajiv V. Thairani of Gutride Safier LLP.

The Colgate toothpaste class action lawsuit is Weingartner et al v. Colgate-Palmolive Company, Case No. 3:23-cv-04086-JCS, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

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