Jul 21, 2019 | Updated: 09:46 AM EDT

Toothbrushes Are a Significant Part of the Plastic Crisis

Jun 20, 2019 11:16 AM EDT


At first, years ago, it was just an occasional piece of plastic trash that Kahi Pacarro, the founder of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, picked up on the beach cleanups he organized around the state. A straw here, a takeout container there. But one day Pacarro spotted something particularly surprising in the beach litter: a toothbrush. Now, in any given Hawaii beach cleanup, he says, it's not uncommon to pick up 20 or even 100 toothbrushes.

The reason is simple. The total number of plastic toothbrushes being produced, used, and thrown away each year has grown steadily since the first one was made in the 1930s.

"I like to ask people, what's the first thing you touch in the morning? It's probably your toothbrush," says Pacarro. "Do you want the first thing you touch every day to be plastic?"

For centuries, the basic toothbrush was made from natural materials. But during the early 20th century, the giddy early days of plastic innovation, manufacturers started substituting nylon and other plastics into the design-and never looked back.

Plastic has so fully infiltrated toothbrush design that it's nearly impossible to clean our teeth without touching a polymer. And because plastic is essentially indestructible, that means nearly every single toothbrush made since the 1930s is still out there in the world somewhere, living on as a piece of trash.

Now, some designers are looking for ways to reimagine this crucial, classic object in a way that puts less stress on the planet.

Many toothbrushes are unrecyclable because the composite plastics most are now made of are difficult, if not impossible, to break apart efficiently. In response, some companies have pivoted back to natural material, like wood or boar bristles. Bamboo handles can solve part of the problem, but most of the bamboo brushes on the market still have nylon bristles, so at least that part of the brush has to be thrown away.

Other toothbrushes, like the Radius, pack more, sturdier bristles into their heads. That helps them last longer so they need to be replaced less often-only two brushes a year instead of four.

Some companies have gone back to a design that was originally introduced nearly a century ago: toothbrushes with removable heads. Goodwell, in Portland, Oregon, produces metal handles it hopes brushers will keep for years. The head pops out when the bristles wear down, and a new one snaps in, reducing the total amount of waste to less than 30 percent of a normal brush, says Patrick Triato, one of the company's founders.

It's very hard to find plastic-free brush options. Biodegradable or bio-based plastics aren't always better for the planet than their more traditional plastic counterparts, either because they don't actually break down particularly well or because they have complicated environmental footprints in their own right.

But any option that reduces the total amount of material used and packaging is a step in the right direction. Getting people thinking about the tools they use to clean their teeth? That's a big step too.

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