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April 26, 2010

Plastic-Free Dental Floss? Not Quite.

 

DenTek plastic floss pick

Cool photo, huh? It’s a plastic DenTek floss pick. I see them all over the streets around here. Our litter bugs have good oral hygiene. Anyway, this one did not come from the gutter.  It is MY plastic floss pick. The Teflon (boo hiss!) tape finally broke last week after many, many uses. No, I wouldn’t buy plastic floss picks myself, but in a moment of desperation, having forgotten my own dental floss, I begged one from a coworker. I’ve kept it in my desk drawer at work and cleaned and reused it over and over again.

I’m going to discuss green(er) flossing options.  But first, an update on my current efforts to de-plastify my oral hygiene. Sadly, it’s one area of my life in which there is still a lot of plastic, although significantly reduced. I’m not willing to compromise too much as far as my teeth and gums are concerned. Bacteria in the mouth have been linked to serious systemic illnesses. Plus, fillings and crowns and other dental work are not particularly eco-friendly, even if you do have the greenest dentist in town.

Here are the supplies I use:

Eco Friendly dental toothpaste, mouth rinse, dental floss, recycled toothbrush

Toothbrush

I use a Preserve toothbrush made from 100% recycled polypropylene plastic, the kind that yogurt cups (and Brita filters!) are made from. Preserve will take back the toothbrushes, as well as all other number 5 plastics, at the end of their lives and recycle them into new Preserve products. While I have a problem with community recycling programs that ship their waste off to China, I support companies that practice “Extended Producer Responsibility” and take back their own waste.  What’s more, Preserve does the recycling here in the U.S. rather than abroad.

Other Options:

Wooden toothbrushes with natural boar bristles. As you can see from the link, the toothbrush comes in a plastic case, so what’s the point?  And second, I personally don’t like the idea of killing a boar for a toothbrush. While some companies claim their bristles come from humanely raised boars, I am skeptical. (And no, I don’t eat meat anymore either. But that is a recent, personal development and not necessarily relevant to this blog.)

Plastic toothbrushes with replaceable heads. Fuchs Ekotec and Radius Source with recycled handles are examples. These options are certainly better than buying all new virgin plastic every 4-6 weeks.

Toothpaste

After trying unsuccessfully to use various baking soda concoctions, and finding that all of them were too harsh for my teeth and gums, I finally reverted back to toothpaste. I keep it as waste-free as possible by 1) Using a very tiny amount. (It’s not the toothpaste that’s so important as the motion of brushing and especially the flossing.) 2) Choosing Tom’s of Maine SLS-Free toothpaste because that company too has a take back program for its aluminum tubes. After removing the plastic cap and threads, you can send the tube to:

Tom’s of Maine
Consumer Dialogue Team
302 Lafayette Center
Kennebunk, ME 04043

A note on BPA: It’s true that the lining of a Tom’s of Maine aluminum tube, like all aluminum containers, may contain some BPA. However, it’s also true that many other plastics contain chemicals that can leach. What chemicals are in plastic toothpaste tubes? We don’t know, and manufacturers won’t tell us. So my choice is a recyclable metal tube with less plastic.

Mouth Rinse

My dentist recommends Dental Herb Company Tooth and Gum Tonic. It is very concentrated, so I use a tiny bit diluted with water. The rinse comes in a glass bottle. Unfortunately, as you can see, the cap is plastic, as is the label. I tried making my own mouth rinse early on, using various herbs and spices in vodka. Then I learned that alcohol is too harsh. The tonic I now use is alcohol-free. It’s basically herbs and essential oils in a base of water and vegetable glycerin.

Dental Floss

So, about those flossing options I mentioned above. I won’t be going out to buy a package of plastic picks with their toxic Teflon floss, even if they can be washed and reused over and over again. And I’m also not going to wash and reuse regular dental floss, as some uber-greenies have suggested. Any floss that’s tough enough to stand up to repeated uses is probably made of some scary material that I don’t want in my mouth anyway.

Eco-Dent dental floss in a cardboard boxEco-Dent:My choice, after weighing all the options, is Eco-Dent dental floss. It’s what I’ve been using for the past two years, and I really like it. Unlike any other brand of dental floss I have found, it comes in a recyclable cardboard container. That was the deciding factor for me. While there is a very thin plastic wrapper inside the box and two protective plastic stickers on the outside, the amount of plastic packaging is minimal compared to all other brands.

What’s more, the floss is waxed using 100% vegetable waxes rather than beeswax or petroleum-based wax. The Gentle floss contains enzymes that help break down food particles between the teeth. The Vegan floss does not, as those enzymes are grown on a dairy substrate. Either sounds great, right? Well…

The floss itself is made from Nylon. Plastic. But I’ve compared Eco-Dent to other brands of floss, and to me, it’s the best choice currently offered.

Radius: Radius natural dental floss is made from silk. If you’re vegan, forget it.  If you’re not (I’m not), you still have to consider the packaging. The outer cardboard box can fool you. Inside is a regular plastic dental floss container.

Tom’s of Maine: The floss is made from Nylon with a hard plastic container inside the cardboard box.

DenTek Natural Floss Picks: In addition to their plastic floss picks, DenTek has created an “eco” option: individual disposable floss picks made from compostable starch rather than petroleum-based plastic. According to the company, they will break down in 180 days at a commercial compost facility. And the FAQ on the web site includes a link to instructions for building your own compost bin if you don’t have a commercial facility nearby. It seems like a green idea. But when you dig into the reality of it, you find just more greenwashing.

  1. Most commercial facilities process their compost at a much faster rate than 180 days. At Jepson Prairie, the facility that handles San Francisco’s compost, the material is “cooked” for 60 days and then “cured” for 30 days. Would DenTek picks break down in that short of a time?
  2. The floss picks come in a big plastic bag, so there’s really no plastic savings there. The company advertises the bag as recyclable, but unless they are willing to take back that bag and recycle it themselves, it’s not likely to get recycled anywhere.
  3. The floss itself is Nylon, so where is the benefit over regular Nylon dental floss?
  4. The “natural” picks don’t work well. In short, according to reviews on Amazon.com and Drugstore.com, they suck. Users complain that the floss doesn’t slide well and breaks too easily. So the argument can’t even be made for washing and reusing them over and over again like I did with my toxic Teflon pick.
  5. Way more materials and energy go into producing floss picks with their plastic handles (regardless of what the handles are made from) than plain dental floss. Unless there is some reason why you can’t use regular dental floss and must use a pick, I’d recommend skipping these.

Bryton picksBryton Picks: Okay, this option just seems weird. I had to post the picture from the site because I couldn’t even figure out how to accurately describe these things. Bryton picks are not floss. Instead, they are made from flexible stainless steel strips that you slide up and down between each tooth. The handle is made from plastic. On the plus side, the device can be cleaned and reused for up to a month, probably longer. But I simply can’t imagine them actually working in the way that dental floss is supposed to work — below the gum line and around the teeth.

I’ll ask my dentist and get back to you.

Glide and other mainstream flosses: They’re made from Nylon or Teflon (worse), come in plastic containers, usually inside plastic blister packs, and are synthetically waxed. So why even consider them?

One Final Word

I’d love to hear your solutions for greener, less plastic dental hygiene. But I’m not willing to go to extremes to get the plastic out at the expense of my mouth.  Part of my goal with this blog/project is to find out just where my limits are — to learn what I am and am not willing to give up. The changes I make don’t have an expiration date. They have to be sustainable for a lifetime.

And one more word after that.

My dentist founded the Eco Dentistry Association, which supports dentists everywhere in finding greener ways to practice dentistry, from reducing unnecessary disposable plastic to finding less toxic treatments. Refer your dentist to the organization’s web site for more information.



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70 comments
Lora
Lora

As far as mouthwash goes, I use coconut oil once a day, swishing for roughly 5 or 10 minutes and have noticed a definite improvement in my teeth since I started.  Coconut oil is known for having great antibacterial and antifungal properties. 

Livia
Livia

So, I"ve read that the fluoride and the glycerine in many toothpastes actually prevent a tooth from remineralizing;  and some who used nice, healthy oils in their homemade tooth cleaners found better tooth healing after leaving them out.  And easy does it on the baking soda, per some, as you don't need to scrape off any more enamel.  Google Dr. Judd or Dr. Phillips on "blotting technique" and "good teeth from birth to death."  Fascinating.  Saliva and a tiny touch of essential oil may be all that is needed on a daily basis, with weekly or monthly baking soda polishing.  

     davidrose
davidrose

Thanks for the post..It is really great. There are also non-toothpaste brushes called ionic brushes that use titanium dioxide to kill bacteria around it. Kind of amazing if they work like the tests show. anyone could tell me about dental digital sensor.

Kay
Kay

As for floss, possibly consider something like the sonicare airfloss? it's expensive and plastic, but you'd be able to use to for a long while

Daniela
Daniela

Hi there,  I am from Germany and have found a plastic free dental floss in an online shop that also ships internationally.  It is rather pricey in that particular shop but there are others that sell it cheaper, at least here in Europe. Maybe there are shops like in the US as well who carry that brand. It's called "Le Négri" dental floss. It is natural finish and comes in a metal tin.

I am not sure if I can post links here but if so this is what it looks like: http://www.manufactum.com/dental-floss-p1402108/

Allison
Allison

Please update on the Bryton Pick. I'm looking into getting them since my boyfriend uses those 'hard to reach angle' floss picks 10+ times a day. Please review them, or at least let us know if your dentist thinks they'll work like floss. Thanks!

Lynn
Lynn

Hello. I found this post while searching for some way to cut down on the huge amount of plastic floss casings I use that I seem to drown in sometimes. It's sad that there aren't that many options out there...barely anyone who doesn't use them. Thank you for making such a comprehensive post and helping out my search. 

Tara Marinara
Tara Marinara

Is there a problem with beeswax? I was planning on making some beeswax coated cotton sheets to use instead of plastic wrap this weekend

DJNN
DJNN

Instead of using the plastic throw away floss pics I find that using a re-usable floss holder is a great solution. Their are a few of them on the market, but I find the E-Z Floss brand to work well for me. It's small enough so easy to travel with but I can still get to the back of my teeth. It doesn't solve the "floss problem", but it can be used with any kind of floss. I have a friend who recommended this one who claims that he has been using it daily for more than 10 years. To me that seems to me to be an acceptable use of plastic.

jentashi
jentashi

I am also considering green dental floss, and am going to experiment with sinew/cured animal tendons.

Katya
Katya

I was trying the baking soda toothpaste recipes and they didnt work for me as well - too hard on my teeth and taste is bad. I ended up making the toothpaste out of white clay powder - it is much softer and healthier basis. I just add tea tree and mint essensial oils for desinfection and smell/taste. Thanks for the floss review!

lindsayseligman
lindsayseligman

Hi, I have been searching forever for reusable or natural alternatives to floss and dental hygene. I love the idea of using the strings from Agave leaves to  floss plus they are stronger! If someone could market this idea it would be amazing. Here is a video of a man using the Agave string to floss. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmT3LTQ6Q88

 

There are also non-toothpaste brushes called ionic brushes that use titanium dioxide to kill bacteria around it. Kind of amazing if they work like the tests show.

http://www.soladey.com/about/how-it-works

 

Then of course as you know Miswak from Peelu or Neem tree are time tested ways of brushing. If anyone has found a source of these that are not individually wrapped in plastic, please let me know!

LaurasLastDitch
LaurasLastDitch

My solution to the the dental floss problem is to reuse. But, my husband refuses to do so. We find dental floss at church rummage sales at the end, when it's fill a sack for $1. By that point, if the floss hasn't been purchased by someone else, it would likely be pitched anyway. When the floss is finished, we pull off the metal cutter and recycle it, and recycle the plastic case. We haven't had to buy floss from the store or take samples from the dentist in many years.

Jay
Jay

I have a nail brush with bristles apparently made from cactus thorns. The bristles are surprisingly soft, and really gentle on my sensitive skin.

If they can use them for nail brushes, surely they would work for toothbrushes too...

 

Anyway, you should consider making your own toothpaste. There are recipes online! 

Monika
Monika

I use the "Environmental Toothbrush" ....made from bamboo and polymer, which they claim is totally biodegradable. They come wrapped in paper in cardboard boxes. I stopped using any toothpaste and haven't noticed a difference in whiteness. For a mouthwash, tea made from fresh thyme leaves is ok (and not as awful tasting as I thought it might be).

Annie
Annie

My dentist here in France laughed at me when I mentioned using floss everyday, saying that that is so American. Flossing is not common in France! My dentist doesn't use floss himself. There are just some practices that we, Americans, have gotten so used to, we don't even question them anymore. Same goes for mouth wash; if you want to use one, make your own with some water and a few drops of tea tree essential oil (or another antiseptic essential oil like lavender).

Dora
Dora

How do you buy the dental herb tonic? is it possible to do so without a dentist? it's just mouthwash, right?

Sandra
Sandra

I was also skeptical about using the Butler gum stimulator in place of dental floss, as recommended by the Zero Waste Home. In the hopes of reducing waste, though, I decided to give it a try. After six months, and a follow-up visit to the dentist's office, I have to say that it really does work. My dentist even marveled that my gums were healthier this time around. There's a trick to using the stimulator tool correctly as a floss substitute: you have to remember to guide the rubber tip around the entire gumline (front and back of each tooth), not just in between teeth. It sounds harder to do than it is, and once you get the hang of it, cleaning teeth this way will take the same amount of time as flossing.

mairsydoats
mairsydoats

I don't think the rubber doodad mounted on a holder is for flossing - I think it's for stimulating the gums. I love that thing with a passion, but still need to floss. Damn those bad tooth genes!!

emma
emma

Check out the zero waste home bathroom. She had plastic free alternatives. Also read the comments someone talks about a compostable toothbrush.

Bert
Bert

Why not just use a heavier thread for dental floss. You can buy it at a sewing store on a wooden bolt.

Anne
Anne

My husband and I have been using Tooth Soap for years, and just recently we tried the (more accurately named) Tooth Shreds (from Rose of Sharon). Tooth Soap comes in reusable brown glass jars with plastic lids. Tooth Shreds comes in metal tins. Both are bits of soap, already shredded. You take out one shred and bite it, then scrub it with your toothbrush until it foams up. Because they're already shredded, there's little or no hygiene problem. Using soap is a different experience from using toothpaste, but it's one I've come to prefer. I don't mind the slight soapy taste and my teeth feel considerably cleaner than they did when we were using regular (green, flouride-free) toothpaste, and neither of us has had any dental problems since we started using it.

Katie M
Katie M

Floss is something i use regularly but completely overlooked in my weekly challenge total. thanks for the less plastic ideas, although i will use up what i already have first. i have tried Tom's toothpaste (and originally picked it for it's non-plastic tube) but my husband complained about the taste. We are currently using Jason (http://www.jason-natural.com/products/oral_care.php) Sea Fresh, but will probably switch back when it's gone.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

HI Veena. These days the Preserve toothbrushes come in a plastic mailer envelope that you send back to the company with the brush. They told me that they recycle both the brush and the mailer. As for those that still come in a box -- the box is made from tree cellulose, not petroleum-based plastic. Still, it is a lot of packaging, isn't it?

veena
veena

yea, but what about the plastic box that the preserve toothbrush comes in....seems like a big bummer and waste....is it recycled also, is it recyclable? i struggle with this one myself as a person striving towards a plastic free life. and i do pretty well. toothbrushes are hard, i think, if only i could grow neem then i could do like they do in india and simply use a twig to brush my teeth...no waste.

KelseyJoy
KelseyJoy

I make my own toothpaste and keep it in a glass jar with a metal lid.....at first it took a while to get used to the flavor(because of the baking soda) but after just a couple of weeks I was in a situation where I had to use regular toothpaste and you know what?....it was disgusting. I found that I could hardly stand the taste of regular toothpaste because it tasted too sweet to me. I love my toothpaste, it's plastic free, doesn't have any odd or ingredients, fast and easy to make, and cheaper in the long run too!! It also doesn't get all foamy in my mouth which I love because the foam from the other stuff makes me gag. :P Here's a link to the recipe I use: http://www.oldpathsfamilyfarm.net/blog/2008/04/04/yummy-homemade-toothpaste/ P.S. I add more stevia and mint in mine then the recipe calls for.

Dmarie
Dmarie

hmmnnn, I'm definitely going to have to read more of the posts I'd missed as a relatively new visitor. there is so much to think about! I had jumped from here to add ecodent to my cart, came back to read more and find the product has more plastic than you thought. will have to research more...would definitely like to find an alternative to the little plastic container types of floss.

Tracey
Tracey

I am giving a DIY Dental workshop tomorrow! WHAT: Natural Dental Care Workshop WHEN: Monday September 20 6 to 8pm WHERE: Anarres Natural Health, College and Ossington REGISTER: http://www.anarreshealth.ca/node/874 In my new workshop by request, Natural Dental Care, we'll discuss the germ, decay and odour fighting properties of essential oils, explore deodorizing and whitening ingredients and carriers and how they "work", look at natural tooth and mouthcare products and earth friendly options, then you'll make a custom mouthwash and breath freshener, plus a custom tooth paste or powder to take home. I am going to point the participants to this entry - could I print it out for them? Better than me just spouting off YOUR research! I use the replaceable head type of toothbrush, and my dsaughter used the natural bristle - in the inane plastic case, until an evil relative bought her an electric princess toothbrush that you can't even replace the batteries for. That's probably even worse than the evil relative who bought her 5 sunglasses at once because "they were on sale!". Oh, yeah, my boycott thing is only for FULL PRICED plastic. Silly me! I MUST get my back bone up to REJECT these gifts instead of whining about them. It's evil to give a kid something behind their parent's back and put the parent in the position of taking it away. Grrr. I make my own toothpaste and mouthwash/breath freshener, and am working through umpteen dental floss containers we already have.

Reenie
Reenie

I forgot to mention that I was given a pick sort of instrument with a rubber tip to use to poke around the gums in between teeth, front and back sides. Has anyone any option on these?

Reenie
Reenie

As I just recently found a great dental hygenist, I learned that my mostly vertical action of floss doesn't clean properly. Probably most know that the floss should be moved to follow the path of the teeth, moving the floss down the side of one tooth, into the valley of gum and a little way up the next tooth. Then reverse directions, starting at the top of the next tooth, back down into the valley of gum just in. BTW I've never used those throwaway flossers; now that I'm flossing with more awareness I don't think they'd be as controllable as a longer line of floss. Also, my new dental hygenist recommends that I hold the floss with middle fingers and use index fingers to control ascent and descent of floss. No sharp up down, but flowing around the sides of the teeth and in the gum region in control flowing action. My former error in flossing was to do mostly vertical movement of floss, the old idea that I must rush. But that up and down-only floss motion will not clean thoroughly, especially near gumline.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Andrea. It looks like the floss comes in plastic containers? Is that right? I am looking at it from my mobile phone so maybe I'm not seeing the picture properly.

Andrea Echavarria
Andrea Echavarria

Dear Beth and all, I am a freak when it comes to Green oral hygiene. I found this amazing product that is currently being sold in Latin America. Is a Single use floss sachet made of biodegradable paper and you can have it with natural silk or nylon. I emailed them about the product and they mentioned that are currently in the process of experimenting with other natural fibers to replace the nylon. They use Natural flavors. I bought a pack from their American Distributor (Fresh & Go) - Try searching single floss sachets and they are great. I think companies like Eco-Dent and Radius should take advantage of this product to replace picks and add a new innovative biodegradable sachet to their ON THE GO markets. Here is there website: www.macrolab.com.co and they seem to be related to www.panaceadental.com (american subsidiary) It is a great product try to post a picture from their website.... Andrea

Julie
Julie

I make my own mouthwash. Take an old bottle and lid that you can reuse. Add a teaspoon of salt. Add a couple drops of essential oil (I use peppermint and eucalyptus). Add water and shake. My dentist recommended salt water as a mouth rinse because it kills germs.

Kristin
Kristin

It is worth learning about Weston Price's experience in dental hygiene. He was a dentist in the early 1900s who traveled the world to find people with healthy teeth and find out why "modern" humans had such unhealthy teeth. He found that people following a traditional diet inevitably had healthy teeth, generally without any need for floss or toothpaste. Why? Well, look into it. But it comes down to diet: raw, full-fat milk from animals on pasture, animal products from healthy animals, traditional fats, foods from the ocean, and fruits/vegetables from highly mineralized soils, and cultured/fermented foods. sunshine, a good amount of raw foods, good water... happiness! I was vegetarian for 14 years and I have a deep respect for the vegetarian way of life. But to regain my health and particularly my dental health I have found a balanced, radically healthy, animal/plant diet makes the most sense. I say this particularly as a nursing mom right now. Look into it: traditional diets and the link to healthy teeth... Dr. Price literally traveled all over the world and didn't find a healthy society that was entirely plant based. I still use dental floss and don't think I will likely reverse my need for it, but maybe my daughter has a chance to keep her naturally healthy teeth!

Sakeenah
Sakeenah

how about using a Miswak? (aka Siwak) this is a certain type of twig that is chewed on traditionally used by Muslims you soften it up by chewing on it and the fibers spread out and go between your teeth, has been used for centuries I have no affiliation with this site, I just want to save myself some typing: http://www.dentalhealthsite.com/what-is-miswak/ unfortunately when we go to buy them now they come in a plastic sheet, guess everyone is paranoid about microbes, but if you start to look around, maybe some ethnic food shops, you can find them bundled

Zo
Zo

Great article, Beth. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I stoppped using Toms of Maine once they were bought by Clorox. I'm trying out some homemade recipes for myself and other brands for hubby who isn't ready to leave commercial toothpaste. Have you found other toothpaste brands that have a non-plastic tube? I can order my things from a Frontier Coop. So, it's sometimes difficult to see packaging before buying. I did find an all-natural, vegan dental floss on a cardboard spool, in a cardboard box while in Santa Cruz last year. I'll try to track it down again for purchasing info...

claire
claire

I was wondering when this was gonna come up. I read a post about someone not being able to find a plastic free floss and I also suggested using thread. I can only assume silk would work better since that's what people used to prefer. But is there any way of knowing what the thread was treated with unless it states that it's unbleached and undyed? And even then, would it be sterile? Eco-Dent's website says this about silk: "Silk production involves chemical sterilization and can be dangerous and involve child labor." Radius' website has this to say about child labor: "Child Labor - does RADIUS have a viewpoint? RADIUS has signed all of the manufacturing protocols associated with the prevention of the use of child labor. Our own manufacturing facilities are in the USA and we have strict policies on the age of employees." But since I doubt the silk is produced in the US, who knows whether their policies apply to the people who produce it. I think it's worth contacting them to ask about where the silk is produced, what's involved in the sterilization process and to ask them if they would consider changing the packaging. I read another post about natural flosses that mentioned that Apache native americans used to use fibers from the yucca plant-- probably yucca elata but I wonder if other varieties could be used. I was thinking about getting the dwarf variety (yucca nana) as a house plant and making floss out of it, if it would work. Really, I bet any natural fiber would work, as long as it's strong enough not to break and soft enough not to cut, and if you aren't a huge germophobe (which I can be sometimes). I had only recently gotten into the habit of flossing when my sister insisted upon it, but after trying to reduce my plastic waste I found myself not wanting to use it. I would really like to find a good plastic free alternative because I do agree that it's a not a good idea to skip flossing-- I also inherited horrible dental genes.

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

@Daniela Hi.  Do you know what the actual floss is made of?  The page does not say if it is Nylon or cotton or some other material.  

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Hi Allison... sorry I forgot to check with my dentist.  But I'm guessing that different dentists might have different opinions.  Want to check with yours too and see what they say?

BethTerry
BethTerry moderator

Beeswax is not vegan, that's all.  I personally use beeswax, but other people do not.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Hi Dora. This particular mouthwash is only sold through dentists, unfortunately, so you would have to have your dentist order it for you. I actually haven't been using it lately because I want to avoid the plastic cap and the plastic label.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Okay, so I have looked at the product on a desktop computer now. Is each individual length of floss wrapped up in a separate package? I'm honestly trying to figure out how it's green because if it's what I think it is, it will create so much more packaging waste than one box that contains 100 yards of floss.

Beth Terry
Beth Terry

Wow, Zo, if you can track down that dental floss, I would love to know more about it. I just discovered yesterday that in addition to the little plastic baggie inside the Eco-Dent box, there is also a plastic spool. I don't know of other toothpaste brands in metal tubes that can be recycled. But I'm always open to hearing about other options.

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