Brushing your teeth. We all do it, and with few exceptions we all do it with the same tool: the toothbrush. Virtually unchanged for centuries, the toothbrush is a convenient and ergonomically designed way to clean the plaque and bacteria that discolors our teeth and causes cavities. But the toothbrush as it stands today has one major flaw that scientists are trying to correct: the trash problem.
It began back in the 1930s with the development of two new materials: plastic and nylon. Toothbrushes, which were a rarity at the time, were still being made with wood. Soon, that wood was replaced by cellulose, and finally plastic with nylon bristles. The plastic and nylon combination proved to be a safe, effective and durable way to clean the teeth – and with time it was relatively affordable, with the price of a brush coming down as plastic became more commonplace.
But all those durable brushes may be a little too durable. Did you know that a recent study found that the average person will use 300 toothbrushes over a lifetime? Or that Americans use so many toothbrushes each year that if laid out, they would wrap around planet Earth four times? That’s a lot of toothbrushes being used – and a lot of toothbrushes being thrown away. In fact, because the materials used to create toothbrushes are unrecyclable and non-biodegradable, according to National Geographic most of the toothbrushes created since the 1930s are probably still around somewhere, whether sitting in a landfill or floating in the ocean, washing ashore onto beaches around the world.
So, what can be done to stop these toothbrushes from clogging landfills and waterways? That’s what scientists are trying to answer.
Dr. Allison Lesko is a dentist based in Fort Collins, Colorado. She said there are already some alternatives to plastic and nylon toothbrushes, but they still have a long way to go toward solving the problem.
“There are bamboo brushes now and even some metal brushes, but they still use nylon bristles,” says Lesko. “They don’t quite go far enough.”
So, what about electric brushes – are they any better?
“Theoretically an electric brush will last longer and stay out of landfills longer, but they still eventually make it to landfills, and they can’t be recycled, either.”
Another problem? They still use plastic and nylon heads that need to be replaced just as often as regular toothbrushes. Though it’s less plastic, scientists are still not satisfied with how much plastic these brush heads leave behind.
So, what can you do to reduce your own toothbrush’s carbon footprint? Dentists like Lesko say swapping to a greener toothbrush such as a bamboo, metal or reusable-handled brush may not go as far as environmentalists want them to yet, but they are still a more viable, greener option than traditional plastic brushes.