Toothbrush design is little changed from its earliest form. The biggest difference is in the materials: toothbrushes are now all made of at least some plastic. Take a tour of the humble toothbrush and find out how it affects the environment.
At first, years ago, it was just an occasional piece of plastic trash that Kahi Pacarro, the founder of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, picked up on the beach cleanups he organized around the state. A straw here, a takeout container there. But one day Pacarro spotted something particularly surprising in the beach detritus: a toothbrush.
Now, in any given Hawaii beach cleanup, he says, it’s not uncommon to pick up 20 or even 100 toothbrushes.
The reason is simple. The total number of Plastic Toothbrushes being produced, used, and thrown away each year has grown steadily since the first one was made in the 1930s.
The best invention of all time?
It turns out people really love having clean teeth. In MIT’s 2003 Lemelson Innovation Index survey, the Electric Toothbrush rated higher than cars, personal computers, or cellphones as the innovation respondents couldn’t live without.
A plastic-free future?
The American Dental Association suggests that everyone replace their toothbrushes every three or four months. At that rate, brushers in the U.S. alone would go through over one billion toothbrushes each year. And if everyone around the world followed those recommendations, about 23 billion toothbrushes would get trashed annually. Most are traditional Bamboo Toothbrushes, but some 55 million U.S. brushers use electric toothbrushes each year, so some number of those plastic-handled, battery-containing objects also end up in the waste stream each year.
Many toothbrushes are unrecyclable because the composite plastics most are now made of are difficult, if not impossible, to break apart efficiently.
In response, some companies have pivoted back to natural material, like wood or boar bristles. Bamboo handles can solve part of the problem, but most of the bamboo brushes on the market still have nylon bristles, so at least that part of the brush has to be thrown away.
Other Special Toothbrushes, like the Radius, pack more, sturdier bristles into their heads. That helps them last longer so they need to be replaced less often—only two brushes a year instead of four.
Some companies have gone back to a design that was originally introduced nearly a century ago: toothbrushes with removable heads. Goodwell, in Portland, Oregon, produces metal handles it hopes brushers will keep for years. The head pops out when the bristles wear down, and a new one snaps in, reducing the total amount of waste to less than 30 percent of a normal brush, says Patrick Triato, one of the company’s founders.
Maintaining good Oral Care is essential to maintaining good overall health. The goal of proper oral hygiene is to remove or prevent formation and buildup of plaque and tartar, to prevent dental caries and periodontal disease, and to decrease the incidence of halitosis.