Ask Gaia About Bamboo Toothbrushes
This is the third installment of your new favorite advice column, penned by resident eco-expert and celestial goddess, Gaia. Submit your own question here.
“Hi Gaia! I've seen a lot of blog posts and Instagram eco-celebrities promoting bamboo toothbrushes. I even have one myself (I got it as a gift from a friend). They do look cool, and at first sight it's tempting to see them as the answer to the plastic problem (or at least part of it), but I'm wondering if maybe they are too good to be true. I mean... I know paper bags have as much negative impact in the environment as plastic bags from a life-cycle perspective, so my question is: are bamboo toothbrushes REALLY more sustainable? or is it pretty much the same impact, in a different packaging?”
Your lil teeth are so important, darling earthling! For this reason, it is recommended that you replace your toothbrush every three to four months, which adds up to a ton of waste over a lifetime. One of the keys to reducing impact is longevity, so even as you routinely replace your brush to keep your chompers clean, give it a second life as a household scrubbing brush. After it’s served out that purpose, you can then properly dispose of it according to its materials.
Conventional toothbrushes are made of virgin plastic handles and nylon bristles wrapped in plastic packaging; if the products happen to be brands Colgate or Tom’s of Maine, the waste can be mailed to TerraCycle where it will be recycled into other items. Toothbrushes may also be recyclable in your municipal system, though you have to check with your city. But recycling virgin materials is literally the worst, so it’s best to find an alternative that saves your pearly whites and the environment.
Before I answer your question, let’s brush up on the sustainable options and their impact.
If you’re comfortable with your plastic brush and just want to toss it in the bin when you are done (or don’t have access to composting), I have some brushes for you:
PLASTIC + CIRCULAR USE | Preserve closes the loop on number 5 plastics by using them to create new products. You may have seen their “Gimme 5” bins in stores like Whole Foods. Customers drop in plastics like yogurt containers and the company turns them into toothbrushes and other items. The toothbrushes are completely recyclable through the same bins or their mail-in recycling program. [Note: I have asked them about the provenance and disposal of their toothbrush packaging and will update when I hear back. Edit: The pouch is made of polypropylene and polyethylene and can be recycled anywhere plastic bags are accepted or Preserve will take it back when you recycle your toothbrush.]
RECYCLED OR BIODEGRADABLE + U.S. MADE + GIVES BACK | Bogobrush encompasses many sustainable qualities without even being bamboo. The black, white, and blue brushes are made from plastics that would otherwise be destined for the landfill and can be recycled. The natural colored one is a plant-based bioplastic mixed with leftover plant material from American farms. I would choose this one over the plastic because the handle is biodegradable when composted. In addition, for each toothbrush you buy, one is given to someone in need through partnering health clinics.
To answer your original question about bamboo: Yes, it is indeed more sustainable than new plastic. Even plant-based plastic will have more impact than bamboo; petroleum-based, even more so. We know that there is a depressing amount of plastic in my lovely oceans, and if a plastic toothbrush ends up there, it will endure in that environment for a long ass time. Bamboo grows rapidly, and, as a plant — a grass, actually — it sequesters carbon. It does not require fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation and grows in a variety of environments. It will biodegrade more quickly and without the deleterious consequences of plastic. Bamboo toothbrushes can also be composted, so you can know exactly where the waste went.
That being said, the bristles of bamboo brushes are still nylon and can enter the environment pretty easily thanks to their small size. Thus, the purveyors of bamboo toothbrushes suggest pulling out the bristles with small pliers before composting or disposing of the brush.
BAMBOO + BIOBASED | Brush with Bamboo toothbrush handles are made from bamboo while the special bristles are composed of 62% castor bean oil and 38% plastic. Still part plastic, the U.S. made bristles are biobased, but still not biodegradable. All other components are made in China in a factory that ensures worker safety, cleanliness, and good working conditions.
The bamboo is entirely rainfed and, much like that post-breakup pixie cut, the stalks regrow in just two years. The cut bamboo is boiled in water, air dried, and carved into toothbrushes which are verified chemical-and-BPA-free. The toothbrush wrapper is made from Polylactic Acid (PLA) which is plant-derived — mainly from cornstarch — and is compostable in commercial facilities; the box is paper. Brush with Bamboo is also a proud sponsor of the 5 Gyres project. Buy them online or find a retailer near you.
BAMBOO + GIVES BACK | Humble Brushes are made from bamboo and the bristles are Nylon-6, meaning they are free from the toxin Bisphenol A (BPA). They are finished by hand, packed, and quality-checked in China — Humble Brush declares that all of their employees are adults who work no longer than 8 hours a day.
The Swedish company partners with various community organizations and donate either a physical toothbrush or the production cost of one to the causes. Humble Brush products are certified by the Vegan Society and they even considered pandas when they chose the type of bamboo they would use (pandas don’t eat MOSO-bamboo because it grows leaves 5 metres and up where they can’t reach). They’re sold worldwide. I wish they provided a retailer map, but since they don’t, they are most conveniently available on Amazon.
Mable similarly uses bamboo and nylon and gives back via a dental hygiene education program.
Depending on where you live, you may find a different bamboo toothbrush available and it is probably best to buy something made and/or available locally. Bamboo is innately sustainable, so look for transparency and seek answers for labor conditions, give back programs, and bristle materials. Most bristles are made of Nylon-6 (some claim that they are biodegradable Nylon-4, but this is likely not true). Here are options in Australia, Germany, and Poland.
If you are ready to go all in on a less conventional zero waste option, I’m down to be your guide. As materials currently stand, a fully compostable toothbrush that looks similar to a conventional one will be made of wood and pig hair bristles (a by-product of the Chinese meat industry). But, 1. gross and 2. nope.
ZERO WASTE | The miswak, made from the twig of the Salvadora persica tree, is a traditional and natural alternative to modern toothbrushes. You chew on the end to create bristles and then rub them against your teeth. No toothpaste necessary! After a few days of use, you cut the end off and begin again; the waste cut offs can then be composted. Used for thousands of years, several studies have found the miswak to be as effective as ordinary toothbrushes — they just take some getting used to. You can often find miswak in Muslim-inhabited neighborhoods or online, but they usually come packaged in plastic, nullifying the zero waste aspect.
ZERO WASTE + U.S. MADE | Brush with Bamboo offers a similar product made from neem sticks, but these are only available in the U.S. If they use the same wrappers as they do for their bamboo brushes, they are compostable in a commercial facility.
Finally, the SWAK toothbrush combines the traditional miswak with modern dental care. The bristles are still made from the Salvadora persica, but are housed in a handle that allows for better brushing angles. You simply replace the little brush heads and compost them; the handle and packaging are all biodegradable. The SWAK is available in the UK and can be shipped worldwide, but you may incur extra taxes and duty costs.
🍉 After you choose the right toothbrush for your chompers, check out our Ultimate Guide to Palm-Oil Free Toothpaste. 🍉