5 Not-So-Fun Facts About the Plastic Toothbrush
Humans have a long history of brushing our teeth. Over thousands of years, we’ve transitioned from natural materials to the infamous plastic toothbrush—which has recently received attention for all the wrong reasons. Let’s take a deep dive into plastic toothbrushes and the negative toll they’re taking on our planet.
History of the Toothbrush
Sticks were some of the first natural materials used to maintain a clean mouth. In fact, archaeologists have even found some used for this purpose in Egyptian tombs. As the years rolled on, things like porcupine quills, cattle bones, boar bristles, scraps of cloth, and even fingers have been used to support humans’ pearly whites.
While the process of “washing teeth” isn’t exactly new, regular oral care is—and it came about in a very unusual way. When soldiers in the Civil War had to load their guns, they often used their teeth to open the bullet wrappers. As a decent number of soldiers lacked enough solidly-anchored teeth to perform this task, dental care became a bigger priority.
After recognizing the benefits dental care could have for whole-body health, toothbrushing campaigns took root and spread across the country. Still, using an official “toothbrush” is a relatively recent phenomenon, too. Even in the early 1920s, just 25% of Americans owned one.
In the early days of widespread toothbrushing, Americans typically used those made from “celluloid,” a moldable, strong material made from a blend of explosive nitrocellulose (the main ingredient in gunpowder) and camphor. Coupled by the popularization of another new material, the soaring demand for toothbrushes required that they be made with something else.
Relatively recent history of plastic toothbrushes
What are toothbrushes made of now? Fortunately, they’re no longer made with highly-flammable nitrocellulose. Unfortunately, the beginning of the 20th century marked the beginning of plastic toothbrushes.
Following Japanese innovations in making durable parachutes and DuPont launch of nylon, we made the switch to plastic toothbrushes. A company called Dr. West’s was one of the first to roll out durable, waterproof, long-lasting nylon bristles in 1938. Shortly thereafter it was paired with a plastic handle.
The rest is (not-so-fun for the planet) history.
Negative Impact of Plastic Toothbrushes on our Environment: 5 Facts
1. We use A LOT of them.
If we were to all listen to the American Dental Association’s recommendation to replace our toothbrushes every three or four months, it would mean that people in the US alone would use more than one billion of them every single year.
As you could probably imagine, this contributes to a huge amount of plastic toothbrush waste.
2. Toothbrushes are hard to recycle (if not impossible)
Toothbrush waste is especially problematic because toothbrushes are difficult (if not downright impossible) to recycle. Because they’re made up of various components (i.e. the handle and bristles), they’re a huge headache for the plastic sorting machines in recycling facilities.
Complicating things even more, most toothbrushes now have handles that are made with composite plastics. Different plastic materials require different recycling processes, and it just isn’t feasible (or economically worth it) to even attempt to recycle them.
3. Most toothbrushes end up in the trash
As a result, we send most plastic toothbrushes to landfills. How many toothbrushes end up in a landfill every year? According to recent research, that number is expected to be greater than one billion toothbrushes, annually.
All in all, Americans alone send about 50 billion pounds of plastic toothbrush waste to landfills. EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.
4. Our plastic toothbrushes may never fully degrade
Whether they end up in landfills or polluting our environment and waterways, plastic toothbrushes will remain there, essentially indefinitely. While they technically go through the process of biodegradation just like every other material, they never fully disappear or become something that supports soil.
How long does it take a plastic toothbrush to decompose? A plastic toothbrush will take, at minimum, 1,000+ years to even begin to break down. Because they never fully degrade, they just become smaller and smaller materials. Enter: microplastics, an enviornmental terror.
Even if the toothbrush in its whole form doesn’t present a problem for wildlife that mistake it for food, microplastics are sure to do the trick. The tiny particles end up infiltrating water and soil, eventually impacting all life—including humans—while they release toxic particles in the process.
5. Plastic is made from fossil fuels
The breakdown of plastic produces toxins, in part, because plastic toothbrushes are made from petroleum, crude oil, and natural gas (AKA fossil fuels). At every stage of production, a plastic toothbrush is associated with significant amounts of greenhouse gasses. Not only that, but they release air toxins like toluene and benzene.
Greener Options for a Great Smile
It’s no wonder that plastic toothbrushes' environmental issues have urged companies and consumers to look for more sustainable alternatives. Fortunately, several great plastic-free materials have emerged.
Wheat straw is just one eco-friendly solution to plastic toothbrushes. And it’s one to get excited about. It’s made from a byproduct of the wheat industry, can be transformed by bacteria to a polymer, and results in a strong, durable, non-allergenic material. Oh yeah, and it’s biodegradable in just three to six months, too.
Wheat straw provides a huge win-win for our planet and pearly whites. Until Terra & Co. launches our line of wheat straw toothbrushes, we’re still making our planet smile with the Brilliant Black Bamboo Toothbrush. It’s made from the world’s fastest growing plant and is also biodegradable (just be sure to remove the bristles).