Your toothbrush and the environment

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Image: Brotes (Shoots), 2014. Alejandro Durán. An image of Durán’s “Washed Up: Transforming a trashed landscape” series. The photographs document plastic waste washed ashore on an UNESCO-listed coast of Mexico. See http://www.alejandroduran.com.

For most, brushing one’s teeth is a daily practice. Analysing the environmental impact of such a mundane exercise may therefore seem trivial; realising the true magnitude of a toothbrush’s environmental impact is anything but.

Toothbrushes are used everyday, by everyone. Australia has a population of over 23 million; if every citizen uses only one toothbrush each year—a conservative estimate—Australia’s 23 million toothbrushes would amount to about 350 tonnes of landfill waste annually. On a global scale, the world population of well over 7 billion people will generate over 100,000 tonnes of toothbrush waste if every individual were to use only one toothbrush each year.

The majority of these toothbrushes are constructed of plastic, and herein lies the environmental threat.
While toothbrushes were initially constructed of materials such as quills, bone, and animal hair, synthetic materials became the norm in toothbrush production during the 20th Century. Natural materials were often unsanitary and flimsy. By the time brushing teeth became a daily practice—a product of military hygiene standards during World War II—thermoplastics and nylon were the standard materials for toothbrush handles and bristles respectively.

These plastics will not break down in a single lifetime; often they migrate from landfills, compounding the problem. Many discarded plastics end up in our oceans. Measuring oceanic debris is an imprecise science, yet the vast amounts of waste present in Earth’s oceans are horrifyingly visible in places. There are a number of oceanic rubbish patches, such as the Eastern Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific, formed by currents that bring together plastic, chemical sludge and other litter.

One familiar item which appears in these waste vortexes is the humble toothbrush.

Many individuals are unaware of the impact their actions have on their local environment, much less the planet as a whole. However, some designers and craftspeople are successfully producing sustainable products that directly contribute to a sustainable future. One such example is the biodegradable bamboo toothbrush.

Rather than being manufactured entirely of plastic, bamboo toothbrushes use natural bamboo wood for handles and biodegradable compounds for bristles. A fast-growing plant, bamboo is a highly sustainable material; it’s natural antibacterial properties counteract the issues experienced with other natural materials in early toothbrush models.

Similar sustainably designed and eco-friendly products have the potential to facilitate positive change for the environment. They may slow environmental degradation, influence and encourage eco-friendly practices in society, and address contemporary challenges to sustainability.

Yet eco-friendly inventions such as the bamboo toothbrush face many challenges. One major obstacle is the divergence between the supply of and demand for sustainable products, what Ezio Manzini calls “A Blocked System.” Essentially, this is an issue of miscommunication. Manufacturing executives claim there is no consumer demand for sustainable products, while consumers feel disempowered by the lack of sustainable alternatives. The result is a stalemate wherein sustainable products are available only in a niche market.

The apparent lack of demand for sustainable products is a vital issue. The mainstream consumer model, wherein ‘the new’ is constantly desired and convenience is prioritised, is one factor. A second is that the broader part of society overlooks the urgency of sustainability. Many individuals are unaware of, or ambivalent towards, the impact they can make on the environment, either positive or negative.

This is the significance of a toothbrush’s environmental impact: the realization that seemingly small and mundane objects and practices have disproportionately large consequences. Realising this requires awareness and introspection. We cannot be ambivalent or dismissive. Acting upon the realisation requires conscientious consumerism, not apathy. Small changes can have a large impact if enough people participate.

(Several brands of bamboo toothbrushes are available in health stores, online, or at the Food Co-op on the edge of ANU’s campus beneath UniLodge.)