Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” toothbrushes, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Surveys suggest that nearly 265 million Americans used manual toothbrushes in 2020. Since most of us brush with these at least twice a day, it’s time to think about where they come from, and maybe more importantly, where they end up.
What to Be Wise On:
The environmental footprint of toothbrushes varies widely at each life cycle stage depending on the material it’s made of, how people use it, and how they dispose of it. Most toothbrushes available today are made from plastic (more specifically, polypropylene and nylon), aluminum, or bamboo. Despite issues with each of these materials, manual toothbrush options still have lower footprints than electric toothbrushes (that heavy handle pays a heavy toll!).
The Factors To Consider:
Fixed vs. Replaceable HeadThey say two heads are better than one, but what about an infinite amount of heads? When it comes to manual toothbrushes, one of the biggest choices you’ll make is whether to buy one with a fixed head (aka that off-the-shelf, one-and-done model) or one that lets you swap out the head for a new one. For better or worse, there is no right answer because it depends on the material of the toothbrush you choose. Bamboo toothbrushes usually have fixed heads, aluminum toothbrushes usually have replaceable heads, and plastic toothbrushes can have either. We’ll dive deeper into each material and its end of life impact, but a recent LCA (i.e. life-cycle assessment) showed that of all manual toothbrush options, plastic ones with fixed heads have the worst overall impact on the environment.
MaterialsIt’s hard to imagine the toothbrush not being an integral part of our daily lives, but it was actually uncommon to own one just 100 years ago. Before the manual toothbrush we know and love today was created, early civilizations used “chew sticks” to keep their teeth clean. The first bristled toothbrush was invented in China in 1498 using boar’s hair for bristles and bones as handles. It took another 440 years for a toothbrush to be made with something other than animal parts. We welcomed the first modern nylon toothbrush into our homes in 1938 and it quickly became a household staple. While plastic-based options dominated the market for decades, some inventive humans set out to find plastic-free options, and that is why bamboo and aluminum manual toothbrushes are available today.
For nearly a century, toothbrushes have primarily been made of plastic. Plastic is made from crude oil and natural gas (aka non-renewable materials), which are then refined to create the polypropylene and nylon that go into manual toothbrushes. In fact, nylon is used for the bristles of aluminum, bamboo, and other types of toothbrushes, too. We can’t escape it! Creating new plastic releases greenhouse gases at every stage of production. If we keep at the current rate of plastic production – which is HIGH – then the cumulation of emissions could reach 56 gigtons by 2050. It would take 2.7 billion garbage trucks worth of trash to be recycled instead of going to landfill to offset those emissions. Given the state of our current recycling practices, we have to make other adjustments to more effectively mitigate climate change.
Even though plastic is painted as an evil thing, it’s not always the worst option, but that’s dependent on how we use it. Think: virgin plastics that are sent to landfills after only one use vs. recycled plastic that is used more than once and therefore reduces emissions by leveraging an existing resource instead of extracting more fossil fuels. If you’re fixed on plastic toothbrushes, prioritize models that use recycled plastic.
While bamboo doesn’t have nearly the same toll as plastic production, cutting down those bamboo stalks for use in toothbrushes certainly removes active carbon sequestration. Ok, time for some good news. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants on Earth, so this renewable resource can be easily harvested without impacting the surrounding environment or contributing to deforestation in a meaningful way. Keep chomping, koalas!
One downside to bamboo production – especially for U.S. manufacturers – is that most of it occurs in Southeast Asia. Shipping materials to U.S. production facilities can have a significant impact on a toothbrush’s associated emissions, especially if the fuel used is petroleum-based.
Aluminum comes from bauxite, a finite resource that is highly energy-intensive to mine – and uses a process that has been spotlighted for several human rights violations, including reducing community access to safe drinking water. Producing 1 kilogram of aluminum emits 12 kg of CO₂e, which is the same as driving over 30 miles in your car. And that’s just in the production of aluminum…we’re not even talking about turning that aluminum into a toothbrush! Similar to bamboo, though, transporting aluminum is not the climate’s BFF, but this time it’s because aluminum is significantly heavier. That means that its transportation-related emissions will be proportionally higher. Remember how we said plastic isn’t always the enemy? This is partly why: plastic is lightweight and therefore generally requires less fuel in transportation than a heavier material like aluminum. Sounds like we’re giving aluminum a pretty bad rap. Time for more good news: recycled aluminum requires just 5% of the energy that it takes to produce new aluminum. Moral of the story? Prioritizing recycled materials can reduce your environmental footprint.
Since the American Dental Association (ADA) recommends replacing your toothbrush every 3-4 months, if you continue to brush your teeth, it’s inevitable that you will produce waste. On a global scale, approximately one billion toothbrushes are thrown out annually. When deciding on which toothbrush to opt for, it’s also important to consider how much waste your purchase will produce and the impact of that waste. The sourcing of materials is only one piece of the puzzle.
Whether using a fixed or replaceable-headed plastic toothbrush, at least some component will need to be disposed of in 3-4 months. For the replaceable toothbrush, the handle can potentially be reused for years. Unfortunately, the odds that your local recycling facility will properly sort that plastic toothbrush is low, so putting in the blue bin doesn’t mean it won’t end up in landfill. Fortunately, there are other options.
Colgate teamed up with Terracycle to create an oral care recycling program that allows people to send in any brand’s used product via mail or drop-off – check the website for any nearby locations. Oral-B has a similar program, Recycle on Us, and smaller brands provide their own programs, as well. This is definitely something to think about before you buy a new toothbrush. Why? Plastics are derived from fossil fuels, which means they are resilient little buggers that decompose VERY slowly. That means they are likely to end up in our oceans or our food chains as microplastics. This endangers marine life and, you guessed it, humans - researchers estimate that humans ingest up to one credit card’s worth of plastic each year.
Just like with the plastic options, bamboo toothbrushes will be disposed of after the bristles have worn down. Unlike plastic, however, which could take centuries to break down, bamboo can fully decompose in as little as 4-6 months if disposed of properly. This means you could break down your old bamboo toothbrush in the time it takes you to use your next one. But this is one where you actually need to read the fine print: This will only happen if the bamboo is composted, which requires an at-home bin that can handle yard waste or a local composting program and your patience to remove any non-bamboo elements (aka those pesky bristles that are likely still made from nylon). If bamboo ends up in a landfill, it will release methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. If you decide to use a bamboo toothbrush, have a game plan to dispose of it properly.
In theory, an aluminum handle should last a lifetime since it’s a highly durable substance, but the disposable heads still need to be thrown away after 3-4 months. With each reuse of an aluminum handle, you can chip away at the emissions caused by manufacturing it. Even if you decide to ditch the aluminum handle, it’s an easily recyclable material. Aluminum can be recycled infinitely and as a result, 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use.
A Few Key Takeaways:
While not using a toothbrush at all could hypothetically be the best way to minimize its impact, we strongly recommend that you continue brushing with a toothbrush (clean teeth lead to longevity in life and relationships - trust us).
When buying your next toothbrush, think about how long you will use it and how strict you’ll be about properly disposing of it. The reality is that the best option is going to be the one you’re most committed to, so do some research into composting and recycling in your area and make a game plan that works for you.
Common Questions We Get:
“Are toothbrush bristles recyclable?”
Most toothbrush bristles are made from nylon, which can be recyclable, but it depends on where you live. Look up your municipality’s recycling rules before attempting to recycle bristles because it will require pulling them out of the toothbrush head with pliers. The recycling of nylon bristles and other rigid plastics is nearly impossible in our current recycling system – check out Terracycle for their zero-waste box for oral care products and packaging.
“Are bamboo toothbrushes more sustainable?”
Depends on what we’re comparing them to! A recent LCA shows that the climate change impact of electric toothbrushes is 11 times greater than bamboo ones. The same study also found that plastic toothbrushes with replaceable heads actually had the lowest environmental impact in more than double the categories than bamboo toothbrushes. So even though bamboo is a great option, it’s not a silver bullet.