Nowadays, many oral care brands have started to turn the corner on recognizing the genuine importance of producing eco-friendly, sustainable, and biodegradable products. However, that doesn’t mean that they are always successful in being the earth-friendly icons that they want to be. In this article, we’re going to walk you through a few types of toothbrushes commonly touted as “eco-conscious” options and discuss the good, the bad, and the….not-so-earth-friendly.
Let’s start with the basics:
Is it really that big a deal if you choose the run-of-the-mill plastic tooth over the more eco-friendly option?
Unfortunate reality check time:
Did you know that plastic toothbrushes account for over 50 million pounds of waste EVERY YEAR in landfills in the U.S. alone?
People in the U.S. throw away over 1 billion toothbrushes every year! That’s a lot of unnecessary waste.
I think most of us can agree that it may be time to start exploring some more sustainable options.
The question is...where do you start?
Like with a lot of products branded as ‘sustainable’ or ‘biodegradable’, it’s important to ensure that the product is living up to its name. So, let’s talk through a few common options on the market right now:
At the moment, the most compostable toothbrushes are animal-based. They typically use boar bristles with handles made from sustainably harvested wood.
So, why aren’t these truly sustainable? For one, keep in mind that these toothbrushes, like all toothbrushes, contain metal staples which can take a very long time to decompose in landfills (i.e. 50-100 years). More importantly, boar hair is taken from the Chinese meat industry or, worse yet, taken from boars specifically raised for their type of hair. As we know by now, the meat industry is far from sustainable and a significant contributor to global warming. In fact, meat production is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse emissions. And guess what? The boars raised specifically for harvesting their hair are also contributing to global warming. More boars bred beyond the natural ecosystem balance=more gaseous greenhouse emissions=worse for the environment. Basically, the more you invest in boar hair-based products, the more you are contributing to an industry that is disrupting the ecosystem through pushing production beyond its natural growing ability. There is also the added moral weight that you are supporting an industry where you don’t know how humanely the pigs are treated. If you’re a vegan, vegetarian, or an omnivore in favor of ethical treatment of animals, we recommend thinking twice before going down this road.
Basically, don’t believe all the hype around the bamboo. As we explored in an article earlier this year, the bamboo toothbrush is far from sustainable. Why is that? In short, three reasons:
1) The majority of the world’s commercially harvested and exported bamboo comes from China. The problem with this is that there is a large market for bamboo toothbrushes in the U.S., which means that there is a large requirement for the transport of those products. Why is this an issue? Well, it turns out that just one ship that transports bamboo to the U.S. actually uses more oil than it takes to supply an entire year’s worth of plastic bags in the U.S. While there has been more of an effort in recent years to grow bamboo within the U.S., there are two big issues with this: 1) There are environmental limitations which prevent many regions of the U.S. from being able to produce bamboo on a commercially viable scale. Even if bamboo can grow, there is some concern over the introduction on non-native species and its long term impact on the soil, and 2) U.S. commercial production of bamboo is very small right now in comparison to China. In fact, the first commercial plantation for bamboo in the U.S. didn’t even have its first harvest until 2019.
2) While bamboo is compostable, that doesn’t mean that it is quickly compostable. Many bamboo toothbrushes have specific instructions on proper disposal for compostability and, if you don’t follow those instructions, your bamboo brush could take a very long time to decompose. For example, if you remove the bristles and bury the brush properly in your home compost bin, bamboo can degrade in 4-6 months. However, if you just toss the bamboo brush (again sans bristles) in your garden, it could take up to 10 years for that brush to fully decompose. This also doesn’t take into account the fact that many of these brushes end up in landfills and we do not know how long it takes to decompose in those conditions. One last thing: it’s important to mention here that the bristles on bamboo brushes are typically made from nylon-6 plastic, which does not degrade.
3) As a result of growing demand for bamboo, farmers are beginning to grow bamboo as a monocrop. Why is this an issue? Monocrops reduce biodiversity, decrease nutrient richness in the soil, and make the land more susceptible to erosion.
Alternative Plastic Toothbrushes:
We can divide this category into two subsets: plastics used on the toothbrush handle and head and the plastics used for toothbrush bristles.
Toothbrush Handle and Head: This is a tough one. Most toothbrushes use plastic and generally we think plastic=bad. And we’ll be honest: plastics aren’t great. They have a notoriously low biodegradability factor. Since plastic is relatively new, we are not sure exactly how long they take to degrade. Scientists estimate anywhere from 500 years to forever.
That said, there are certainly variations in the earth-friendliness contingent on the type of plastic. Bioplastics, for example, are created from natural sources so they eliminate the demand for fossil fuels (aka petroleum) during the front-end lifecycle of a product (i.e. production). A good example of this is cellulose, which we use in our Big Brush toothbrush handle. Unfortunately, while this is a good start toward eliminating our ecological footprint, this does not solve the end-of-life of the plastic (i.e. its ability to break down in a landfill). Most manufacturers focus on the front-end lifecycle of a product, but we believe there needs to be more focus on developing the end-of-life of a product. One day, we hope to have a toothbrush that has less impact on the environment during the manufacturing process and leaves a minimal impact on the environment post-use as a result of its high degradability factor in multiple environments.
Bristles: It is important when investigating the “environmentally-friendly” toothbrushes to take a look at the actual bristles. Many toothbrushes use Nylon 6 in their bristles, which is a type of nylon that has notoriously poor biodegradability. Recently, the synthetic polymer Nylon-4 has become all the rage because it was shown in lab conditions to be biodegradable within a period of 4 months in an International Journal of Molecular Sciences study. While these are promising results, the conditions Nylon-4 degraded in was in soil and activated sludge in the lab, which don’t mimic the environmental conditions in landfills or in the frigid ocean waters where a significant amount of these products end up. There have also been false claims of products using Nylon 4 when actually they use Nylon 6. For a better alternative, vegetable-based nylon bristles are not completely biodegradable, but they are made out of all-natural elements making them degrade faster. Additionally, production of vegetable-based nylon creates fewer emissions than completely synthetic nylon.
What We Do At RADIUS
By now you know that we are an eco-friendly company designed to provide the best oral care with the lowest possible environmental footprint. So what are the specific measures we take to make that happen?
Our Big Brush, Source Brush, and Tour Brush feature replaceable heads. By using replaceable heads, approximately 90 out of every 100 toothbrushes are saved from landfill oblivion.
Bioplastics are made without fossil fuels and culled from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable oils, timber, and agricultural byproducts. We make our plastics as compostable and biodegradable as is possible.
Upcycled Handle for Source Brush
Our Source Brush reduces waste by an astounding 93%. Between the replaceable head and the upcycled handle made out of repurposed and upcycled materials such as hemp, coconut, wood, paper, and even dollar bills, this brush is about as renewable as you can get.
More Bristles=Less Waste
RADIUS toothbrushes have 300% more bristles than your average toothbrush, which means that our brushes last, on average, 6-9 months instead of the typical 3 months. This means our toothbrushes are thrown out less often.
Speaking of Bristles…
Ours are made from eco-friendly vegetable-based nylon. They are soft, but they also are made from castor oil instead of petroleum (a fossil fuel which we have no regenerative source for). Castor oil makes the bristles absorb minimal moisture and retain their shape longer.
The Right Machinery and Manufacturing
We use small batch, low-energy machines. We have also made the commitment to recycle imperfect items to reduce waste. We carefully hand-select our materials so that no heavy metals or carcinogenic substances are included in the products. Additionally, we manufacture our toothbrushes in the USA to ensure quality and a limited carbon footprint in our production. Since most of our customers are also USA-based, we also limit emissions during the shipping process.
We at RADIUS are always doing our part to explore more and more biodegradable options. Living up to our word, we are actually smack-dab in the middle of developing a 100% biodegradable option for our toothbrushes. It’s not quite there yet, but know that we’re committed to finding the best option for your oral health and our planet.
RADIUS might not have the perfect system, but we’re well on our way.