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by Liz Barteldt
While you may think your toothbrush is small in the grand scheme of things, so do over 330 million other Americans. According to the American Dental Association, one billion plastic toothbrushes are thrown away every year in the US, contributing to 50 million pounds of waste in our landfills. Luckily, more eco-friendly alternatives exist. But, much more goes into it than simply making sure it’s made of bamboo. Below, we detail all the parts of a toothbrush, what alternatives exist, and our top picks.
What’s in my toothbrush?
Most conventional toothbrushes use nylon bristles. This synthetic polymer does not biodegrade and its production creates nitrous oxide, which is 310 times more potent than CO2.
There are better options, however. Most eco-friendly toothbrushes have castor bean oil bristles. While the bristles are technically made from castor beans, lots of chemical processing turns them into Nylon-11. Thus, these bio-based bristles are still plastic and cannot biodegrade. However, they are not derived from petroleum which makes them better than virgin nylon.
The only compostable bristle material on the market currently is boar hair. However, the hair is from the Chinese meat industry, where it is unclear how the pigs are treated. Further, some argue that by buying these products, you are indirectly supporting the meat industry. However, others argue that using more parts of the pig is an eco-friendly option in an otherwise horrible industry. Particularly for vegetarians and vegans, this may be a material to avoid.
Conventional plastic toothbrush handles can take 500 years to degrade. Even then, they break down into microplastics which further contaminate the environment. They are commonly made with polypropylene and polyethylene, with polypropylene being more easily recyclable. However, being a #5 plastic, most recyclers do not accept it.
However, bamboo has been rising in popularity as an alternative to plastic handles, and for good reason. Bamboo is a durable, fast-growing material. While trees can take over 30 years to grow to their full size, bamboo can grow to full size in just 3 months. In fact, it can grow 3 feet in 24 hours! So, bamboo is an attractive option when it comes to replacing plastic toothbrushes.
There are, however, some things to consider with bamboo products. Since most bamboo is grown in Southeast Asia, transportation emissions should be considered. However, having it grown in other places such as the US comes with its own problems, as it introduces a non-native species which could impact the integrity of the soil.
Overall, while bamboo may have some downsides, it certainly decomposes much faster than plastic. In fact, it is 100% compostable* within 2-6 months.
*This is only if you put it in an actual composter. If you simply put it in your garden, it could take from 5-10 years to break down.
Metal staples are a common material used in all toothbrushes because they hold the bristles in place. While they are helpful for this reason, they also make it harder to recycle your toothbrush, since all these materials have to be separated. So, it is important to remove the metal staples from your toothbrush before recycling.
Types of Toothbrushes
Our Top Picks
- Preserve toothbrushes have handles created with 100% recycled #5 plastic, a type of plastic used in yogurt containers. While the bristles are virgin nylon, the toothbrushes are recyclable through Preserve’s mail-in recycling program.
- Yaweco toothbrushes are made from plastic but have replaceable heads. The brand makes toothbrushes with castor bean oil bristles as well as pig hair bristles.
Recycled plastic, replaceable heads, and take-back programs.
Our Top Picks
- Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes are made with FSC-certified Moso bamboo, which is a type of bamboo not consumed by pandas. The bristles are USDA-certified biobased and made with 100% castor bean oil (not biodegradable). The product is also vegan and comes in plastic-free packaging.
- Etee bamboo toothbrushes are made with replaceable heads, so you can keep the body of your toothbrush (which is made of FSC-certified bamboo). Like with Brush with Bamboo toothbrushes, the castor bean oil bristles are not biodegradable, and only the handle can be composted.
- Life Without Plastic toothbrushes have a bamboo handle and boar hair bristles. The bristle stiffness can be adjusted based on moisture level.
While electric toothbrushes are known for their superior teeth-cleaning technology, they aren’t known for being sustainable. Typically, the body and heads are made of plastic. While you reuse the body, you often switch out the heads every 3 months. Charging electric toothbrushes also requires electricity (usually from nonrenewable sources), and battery-powered toothbrushes aren’t much better, as batteries can contaminate the environment after being thrown out.
One life cycle assessment showed that over 5 years, electric toothbrushes performed the worst across all categories compared to bamboo and replaceable-head plastic toothbrushes, which performed the best. In fact, the “climate change potential” of electric toothbrushes was 11 times greater than bamboo toothbrushes.
So, if you can, opt for a manual toothbrush. If you still want to stick with an electric toothbrush, consider the following while shopping:
- Compostable, durable materials
- Castor bean oil bristles
- Company recycling program
- Click here for a detailed page on how to recycle an electric toothbrush
- Long-lasting battery life/little charging needed
Our Top Picks
Quip is a sleeker version of your standard, battery-powered electric toothbrush. They’re ADA accepted, and AAA battery-powered. To reduce your battery waste, you can buy a solar battery charger from their website!
Etee’s electric toothbrush with a replaceable bamboo head has castor bean oil bristles and uses a charging stand that must be charged once a month. While the website claims the body of the toothbrush, made from plastics and metals, is 100% recyclable, we were unable to find more info on this.
Natural alternative to conventional toothbrushes
If you’re feeling adventurous, there are completely natural alternatives to your regular old toothbrush. Miswak is a twig from the Salvadora persica tree and is the oldest known oral hygiene tool used predominantely by people in Africa and the Middle East.
Studies have proven throughout the years that miswak is an extremely effective alternative to toothbrushes. In fact, the World Health Organization has recommended the use of miswak. Further, it has been shown to promote teeth whitening and have anti-plaque, gingivitis, and carcinogenic properties.
Since miswak is completely natural, and therefore compostable, we have rated this as one of our top picks. However, it is always important to consult your dentist before trying a new dental hygiene product. More information on how to use a miswak can be found on the THIS Toothbrush website.
What you can do now
If you just bought a new electric or plastic toothbrush a week ago, don’t fret. We recommend you use the product for as long as you can, and when it reaches the end of its life, look into toothbrush recycling programs. First, look into whether your toothbrush brand has its own. If not, there are other companies that take your old toothbrushes and recycle them for free through TerraCycle:
Better yet, you can use your old toothbrushes as a household cleaning tool.
Look for these certifications
American Dental Association (ADA) Seal of Acceptance
If a product has this certification, it means that the product is reliable, safe, and high-quality according to the ADA. The only product on our list that has the ADA Seal of Acceptance is the Quip electric toothbrush. However, just because the companies have not spent the time and money for this certification does not mean their products are necessarily ineffective or not safe. In fact, as long as your toothbrush has soft bristles (which include both nylon and castor bean oil bristles), it is considered ADA-compliant.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification
This certification guarantees that products come from responsibly managed forests. If this is something that is important to you, the Brush with Bamboo bamboo toothbrush and the Etee bamboo toothbrush with the replaceable head are both FSC certified.
- How to recycle an electric toothbrush: https://www.hunker.com/12001547/how-to-recycle-electric-toothbrushes-their-batteries
- Miswak study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4436748/
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