Ok, so now that you have your toothpaste sorted you’ll need a brush to put it on. Toothbrushes have been around a long time. Records from Egypt and Mesopotamia show that people have used “chewing sticks” to brush their teeth for more than 5,000 years. Twigs from various trees are still used as chewing sticks today, mainly miswak (a.k.a. the toothbrush tree) in many African and Middle-Eastern countries and also neem in India. Around 500 years ago, toothbrushes were developed in China consisting of boar hair stuck onto bamboo or bone handles. Then, after nylon was invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers, nylon bristles became the norm and things have stayed that way.
Evolution of the toothbrush handle
Toothbrush handles have also “evolved” over the last century (or rather come a full circle). During WWI, bones were needed to make soup so celluloid (the first thermoplastic) took over for handles. Now, toothbrush handles are made from various plastics, from simple polypropylene to advanced thermoplastic elastomers, copolymers of plastic and rubber that feel slightly soft and are easy to grip. I know there’s nothing we love or need more in life than nice chunky ergonomic soft-touch handles on our toothbrushes, but does it justify the development these new materials? This ad from Plastics Technology didn’t exactly fill me full of hope that there is much transparency in the industry. Since toothbrushes are one of those things that people often find washed up on beaches there’s a public demand for solutions. The first alternative toothbrush I bought was from Fuchs (whose slogan is Different Strokes for Different Folks) – they make replaceable heads so you re-use the handle (what you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?). Then I started to notice Preserve toothbrushes, where the plastic is made from recycled yogurt cups (polypropylene) and they also take back the toothbrushes for recycling of the handle. Preserve have done a wonderful job at creating a market for polypropylene (#5 plastic), which is rarely recycled. Then the circle was completed in the last few years with an eruption of toothbrushes with bamboo handles!
Search for a plastic-free toothbrush
Oakland’s Beth Terry has taken her personal project to avoid generating plastic waste to heroic levels (check out her book, Plastic Free, and her TedX talk vid at the end of this page). Her search for a good toothbrush serves as a good example. In her initial search for the perfect bamboo toothbrush she came up against bristles claiming to be made from bamboo that turned out to be made from polyester and bristles claiming to be made from Nylon-4 (a potentially biodegradable form of nylon) that turned out to be regular old Nylon-6. So, one thing to be wary of when the market rushes to fulfill public demand for a new product is that you’ll see so many copycat versions of a product, some better than the original, some significantly worse. Beth’s search for an eco-friendly toothbrush inspired the founders of Brush with Bamboo to make one that meets her standards. She advised them on various things along the way, such as packaging, and now their toothbrushes are sold in compostable packaging (recycled paper, no glue), the handle is a single piece of bamboo (other brushes are made from two pieces glued together), the bristles are made from 38% oil-based plastic and 62% castor oil (renewable). Her efforts are a good testament to how a single consumer voice can create change, and how many companies (especially the smaller ones) are willing to listen.
Toothbrush ranking for sustainability
So, in terms of just the materials used to make the toothbrush, here’s my personal ranking of the options mentioned above:
7th place: Over-engineered soft-grip toothbrush (made from “advanced” thermoplastic elastomers)
6th place: A simple polypropylene toothbrush (thin, hard handle)
5th place: Fuchs’ EcoTek toothbrushes with replaceable heads
4th place*: Preserve toothbrush, made from recycled polypropylene and recyclable through Preserve
3rd place: Certain brands of bamboo toothbrush, depending on how they are made
2nd place: Brush with Bamboo toothbrush (for the reasons listed above)
1st place: A chewing stick?
*Some might rank the Preserve toothbrush in 2nd or 3rd place because of the value of their polypropylene recycling program.
I didn’t cover some options like the Life Without Plastic toothbrush, made from beechwood and pig bristle, which could be a good choice for people who are okay with the pig bristles.
That ranking just considers the materials used for the brush. I didn’t go into the packaging much, but obviously that’s a factor too – plastic blister-packaging is still common for mainstream brands. By the way, the best-selling chewing sticks on Amazon are packaged in individual plastic tubes!! I guess they’re going for the hipster rather than the hippie market.
Ethical consumerism review of two bamboo toothbrushes
Then, beyond the physical object you might also want to consider some of the other factors, such as the company’s practices when it comes to energy, waste, employees, material sourcing, animal testing, etc. Here are my reviews of toothbrushes made by Brush with Bamboo and Mother’s Vault.
Here’s Beth Terry’s TedX talk: