As a society, we’ve become hyper-aware of the environmental impact of what goes into our mouths for consumption (aka food and beverages). We’re now trained to make considerate choices -- maybe that means swapping out beef burgers for Beyond Burgers or putting almond milk in our coffee instead of cow’s milk. Scratch that, we now swap oat milk for almond milk for cow’s milk (Because almonds require a lot of water to grow and cultivate. Check out California’s severe drought if you need further proof.) But what about what goes into our mouths and then down the drain? How often do you think about the environmental impact of your toothpaste?
All of the products that we use to keep our pearly whites, well, pearly, may be sending some unintended environmental consequences down the pipes. Here’s what you need to know about the core four of dental hygiene: toothbrushes, mouthwash, toothpaste, and floss, and what happens when this stuff goes down the drain.
Disclaimer: Outside of the environmental impacts, there are some heavily debated social topics associated with these products. What do we mean by this? We’re talking about topics like the Great Fluoride Debate and the necessity of flossing. Okay, we will concede that flossing is not heavily debated, BUT maybe it’s not as necessary as the dentist makes it seem? All jokes aside, in this blog we won’t be talking about the social side of the bathroom sink.
To floss or not to floss may seem like quite the dilemma, but by the looks of it, the United States is doing quite a bit of it. The US goes through about 3 million miles of floss per year — which could go around the world more than 120 times. In other words, we use a LOT of floss, so what’s its deal?
Floss is disposable by design — we’re supposed to use it once and then toss it in the trash. This means that because a lot of floss is being used a lot of waste is being created. Traditional floss is made of nylon and coated in PFASs. PFASs help make things waterproof and slick and are found in non-stick cookware, fast-food wrappers, and... dental floss. PFASs also happen to be toxic. Nylon, on the other hand, is a type of plastic that takes more than 80 years to decompose. And, nylon is one of the many types of plastic that happens to be derived from crude oil (fossil fuels) and emits nitrous oxide when it’s being produced (nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide).
What’s happening when this floss finds its way down the drain or into the trash? Let’s talk about fatbergs, the Babadouk of the pipes, where flushed floss may often call home.
Fatbergs are a combination of non-biodegradable solids (like floss!) and fat that finds its way down our pipes, like that bacon grease from Sunday morning’s breakfast. These items combine into giant masses that block sewers and can wreak havoc on sewage systems. Strangely enough, or perhaps not because of the City’s love of deep-fried fish and chips, this is a huge problem in London (the 2018 White Chapel fatberg’s removal was actually live-streamed). More than half of all sewer blockages in this British metropolis are caused by these masses and the largest one found weighed more than the biggest Blue Whale known to man. Fatbergs ultimately clog sewers and destroy infrastructure, and their removal requires a lot of resources. Fatbergs each cost thousands of dollars to remove...which often falls to taxpayers. In New York in 2018, the removal of fatbergs cost more than $18 million. Yes, you are funding the removal of an amalgamation of flub and Weird Stuff, including condoms, legos, and even iPhones, from sewers.
If you want to test your fatberg knowledge, you can take this fun little quiz about what was found in a fatberg in the United Kingdom. It’s ‘fun’ in the same way watching Dr. Pimple Popper is, and we would never stand in the way of such a thrill.
The key takeaway? This is a friendly reminder to never flush your floss down the toilet. While floss and other items can accidentally find their way into our pipes and have detrimental effects on our systems, intentionally flushing floss guarantees this. To dispose of floss properly, put that bad boy directly into the trash -- traditional floss cannot be recycled.
Of course, we can’t talk floss without talking about those handy-dandy floss picks. Ever wonder how dental picks stack up against their normal floss rivals when it comes to environmental impact? Lucky for you, here at Finch we did a little back-of-the-envelope math on the environmental impacts of the plastic and nylon used over 150 flosses, for both traditional floss packages and floss picks. We looked at the 18 most important impacts that a product can have on the environment. Our results showed that materials used in floss picks were significantly worse for the environment in 16 of the 18 categories, from water consumption to land-use. For example, when considering toxicity to freshwater creatures, the environmental impact of floss picks was 10 times higher than that of normal floss. Additionally, the materials used to make 150 floss picks produced 3 times more greenhouse gases than a normal 55-yard container of floss. We say, do not pick the picks!
Has anyone else ever seen an extremely chewed, very mangled toothbrush in a friend’s bathroom and felt pretty... uncomfortable? Just wait until we talk about what else toothbrushes are capable of.
Who here leaves the tap on when brushing their teeth? No one? Okay, good. With the tap running at full force for the whole dentist-recommended two minutes, tooth brushing could use about 10 gallons of water per brushing session. In a year (if we’re brushing twice per day), that’s 7,300 gallons of water a year, which is roughly the same amount of water in an 18 foot round above-ground pool. And, moving water throughout the plumbing system requires energy, so anytime the faucet is on, we are using water and other resources.
While we’re wary of single-use plastic utensils and have been taught by mainstream media to avoid straws like the plague, what about our more covert plastic reliance? For many of us, plastic toothbrushes are part of our daily lives. Let’s say we all switch out our toothbrushes when we’re actually supposed to: every four months. That’s three toothbrushes a year, so, in a lifetime, the average person uses roughly 300 plastic toothbrushes. On one hand, that’s a lot of money to be spending on toothbrushes and we should all be more diligent about taking those freebies from the dentist and, on the other hand, that’s a lot of toothbrushes that end up in the trash.
On a global scale, approximately a billion toothbrushes are thrown away annually. That’s about 50 million pounds of waste into landfills. Even worse, many toothbrushes are made from polypropylene plastic and nylon, which come from fossil fuels. Many of these toothbrushes don’t even make it to the landfill; if disposed of improperly, plastic toothbrushes can find their way into waterways and pose serious risks to marine life.
So, what are you supposed to use to brush your teeth? No, the answer is still not your finger. A recent LCA (i.e. life cycle assessment, i.e. one of Finch’s favorite tools) investigated the environmental impact of four different types of toothbrushes: electric toothbrushes, traditional plastic manual toothbrushes, plastic manual toothbrushes with replaceable heads, and bamboo manual toothbrushes. The results were telling: the options with the least environmental impact were the bamboo and replaceable-head plastic toothbrushes. The electric toothbrush was by far the worst compared to the three manual toothbrushes, with a climate change impact 11 times greater than the bamboo toothbrush, and a land-use impact more than 36 times larger than a bamboo brush. Yikes. Talk about an unexpected turn of events.
Time for a translation? Even though A LOT of toothbrushes end up in the trash, the results of this study indicate that plastic waste is actually one of the least important contributors to environmental degradation from our daily brushing habits. Turns out how we use our toothbrushes and whether we leave the water running while brushing, as well as the material used to make our toothbrushes (ahem, polypropylene), matters a heck of a lot more. On that note, despite the fact that growing bamboo takes up land for agriculture, these researchers proved that making an electric toothbrush actually uses more land — take that to your dentist next time they say electric toothbrushes help prevent cavities. Zinger.
TOOTHPASTE AND MOUTHWASH
The dynamic duo of toothpaste and mouthwash is the creme de la creme when we’re talking minty fresh breath and happy loved ones. We all love that ultimate clean sensation after a deep scrub, swish, spit, and rinse, but what’s the deal when it comes to the planet? Let’s talk about problematic ingredients. Three to look out for, in particular, are Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Poloxamer 407, and Cetylpyridinium Chloride.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS for short) is an emulsifying cleaning agent found in dental hygiene products, as well as laundry detergent and shampoo. It also happens to be a highly toxic threat to aquatic life, including plants or animals whose primary ecosystem is in water, from algae to frogs to fish. Some studies have considered that the toxicity of SLS depends upon certain factors, including how diluted the SLS is, what types of marine species are impacted, and what temperature and hardness the water is. However, the World Health Organization unequivocally states that SLS “...is toxic to aquatic organisms. It is strongly advised not to let the chemical enter into the environment.” The WHO feels pretty reliable if you’re asking us. Cool, cool. Too bad SLS is found in Crest Toothpaste and Colgate Toothpaste. Potential alternatives? Other brands, like Bronners, avoid using emulsifiers altogether and work just as well for getting those pearly whites squeaky clean.
In mouthwash, Poloxamer 407 helps blend the unblendable, mixing all the different ingredients into that electric blue or intense green we’re all so familiar with. Among other superpowers, Poloxamer 407 is proven to cause hyperlipidemia in animals, which, in other, very scary words, is the overproduction of fats in blood, which in turn creates an increased risk for heart attack or stroke. P407 can be found in Crest Pro-Health Rinse, so maybe we try Burt's Bees Purely White Toothpaste instead? Because who really needs electric blue paste.
Cetylpyridinium Chloride, also known as CPC, is commonly found in mouthwashes but is also used in the poultry processing industry to reduce microbes. Who knew industrial chicken coops and your morning routine had so much in common? Unfortunately, this one is a doozy when it comes to toxicity concerns, including that animals exposed to CPC can have reproductive disruptions and infertility. Definitely not a good look. There are even existing petitions that ask to have CPC added to the USDA National Organic Program’s National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, and it’s also banned in Japan in the use of cosmetics. Unfortunately, CPC is found in Colgate Mouthwash. Steer clear!
Let’s face it. We do spit mouthwash and toothpaste down the drain. And where does it go? When we wash paste down the drain, the water carrying it away first likely hits a water treatment facility to get cleaned in the hopes that some of the chemicals we spit into the sink can be removed. Unfortunately, the facilities aren’t yet capable of this. A study of “cleaned” water coming directly from facilities showed SLS in every single sample across 47 samples taken in several countries. This means that when we’re spitting into the sink, some of the associated chemicals are getting into waterways where we find, you guessed it, aquatic life. Minty fresh is not looking so fresh anymore.
WHAT’S THE TAKEAWAY
Some products aren’t necessary -- no, we didn’t need to buy the Tupperware with the valve at the top to release steam, but did we? Yes, yes we did. When it comes to oral hygiene products, however, we don’t really have a choice while still protecting ourselves from the risks of gum disease and other scary chomper-related illnesses. We can choose, though, to change some wasteful or harmful habits. Opt for toothpaste and mouthwash without SLS, Poloxamer 407, or CPC. Good news, scientists are working on innovations in the mouthwash space to avoid some of these issues, including using chitosan, which is a waste byproduct from the shellfish industry with antimicrobial properties. Talk about pearl perfect. While we might not love the sound of shellfish entering our mouths outside of the form of sushi, this is an exciting innovation that shows that waste products can one day become a more sustainable option.
What other choices can you make? Next time you need a new brush, go for a bamboo option. Turn off the sink when you’re brushing to conserve some water, and don’t flush your floss down the drain! Who knew dental hygiene could be such a chore (maybe don’t tell the kids that last part).
It’s important to remember that when switching out products, do not throw away something that isn’t finished to buy a more sustainable option. This may seem counterintuitive, but because of insidious capitalist tendencies, sometimes we want to buy to be more sustainable when in reality that’s creating more waste. Consider how you might react if you learned that the tube of toothpaste you just bought comes in a non-recyclable plastic container. Would you toss it and go get one of those refillable glass containers with the cool, chewable tablets that constantly show up in Instagram ads? We might be stoked to get that cool new product because those normal tubes of toothpaste are looking less sexy by the minute. To replace it now though, would be to waste all that toothpaste and create energy, water, and resource waste to both make the new product and break down the old one. TLDR; buy with intention.
Want to see science-backed sustainability ratings on all of your fav products?