08/24/2013 Update: My new favorite bamboo toothbrush is called Brush with Bamboo. Read the full review here. It wasn’t around back when I wrote this post.
What toothbrush would you choose? Recycled plastic in returnable packaging or natural wood packaged in plastic? Nylon bristles or natural pig hair? Or how about a stick that you chew on? I’ve been researching toothbrush alternatives and found that they all have pros and cons. How you brush your teeth will depend on your environmental and ethical priorities, I think. There’s no perfect answer. Which would you choose?
Preserve Recycled/Recyclable Toothbrush
Materials: 100% post-consumer recycled polypropylene #5 plastic and Nylon bristles. Recycled plastic wrapper which doubles as a prepaid mailer.
Origin: Made in the United States.
Why it’s good: I don’t use the word “recyclable” lightly. If a company claims its product can be recycled but doesn’t provide an actual way to recycle it, then I don’t consider it recyclable at all. Preserve DOES provide a way to return its plastic products for recycling (some would say “downcycling) so I give them props for practicing extended producer responsibility.
Preserve toothbrushes are made from recycled yogurt containers and other post-consumer #5 polypropylene plastic that is returned to them through their Gimme5 program. You can bring your used #5 plastics (all Preserve products, other #5 containers, medicine bottles, Brita filters, Tom’s deodorant containers, etc.) to participating Whole Foods stores or mail them back to Preserve. The toothbrush wrapper doubles as a prepaid mailer. When you’re done with your toothbrush, just stick it in the mail. The mailer will be recycled along with the toothbrush. Personally, though, I prefer to save them up and take them to Whole Foods to avoid the extra fuel to ship individual toothbrushes. But I appreciate Preserve’s efforts to make recycling easy for customers.
Less Than Perfect: Keep in mind, though, that Preserve’s recycling program does not actually close the recycling loop. Toothbrushes are recycled into plastic lumber, which does nothing to decrease the demand for virgin plastic to create those yogurt containers, Brita filters, and other packaging, but it does decrease the demand for virgin plastic toothbrushes and slows down the plastic’s journey to the landfill.
Also? This toothbrush is made from plastic. It you don’t want to put plastic anywhere near your mouth, this is not the toothbrush for you.
How it Works: I have been using these toothbrushes since 2007. I like the bent handle and soft bristles.
Materials: Bamboo handle, Nylon bristles, cardboard box, polypropylene inner wrapper.
Origin: Made in Australia. (Correction: Designed in Australia/Made in China.)
Why It’s Good: Most of the Environmental toothbrush and packaging are plastic-free and compostable. And the company cites an article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, which states that Nylon 4 — the material from which the bristles happen to be made — is also biodegradable in soil:
9.2. Nylon 4
It has been reported that nylon 4 was degraded in the soil  and in the activated sludge . The results confirmed that Nylon 4 is readily degradable in the environment. Furthermore, the biodegradability of nylon 4 and nylon 6 blends was investigated in compost and activated sludge. The nylon 4 in the blend was completely degraded in 4 months while nylon 6 was not degraded . Recently, Yamano et al. was able to isolate polyamide 4 degrading microorganisms (ND-10 and ND-11) from activated sludge. The strains were identified as Pseudomonas sp. The supernatant from the culture broth of strain ND-11 degraded completely the emulsified nylon 4 in 24 h and produced γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) as degradation product .
Less Than Perfect: The inner white sleeve around the toothbrush is actually made from nonwoven polypropylene plastic, not paper. After receiving a shipment of the toothbrushes for the giveaway, I was curious about the shiny coating inside the wrappers and emailed the company to find out what it was. James Wilson, the company’s International Sales Manager wrote to find out, and that’s when we both discovered that the wrapper is made with plastic. According to the company:
This is as green as we could make the packaging and still pass all health restrictions when packaging a toothbrush.
How it Works: The bristles are a little harder than the Preserve bristles that I’m used to, so I have just been learning not to brush as hard. And I had to get used to the shorter handle. But it’s a basic toothbrush. It works fine.
Life Without Plastic’s Plastic-free Wooden Toothbrush
Materials: Sustainably-harvested beechwood handle preserved with vegetable oil, natural bristles made from pig hair, small cellophane wrapper around the head of the toothbrush (cellophane is made from trees.)
Origin: Made in Germany. Pig hair imported from China.
Why it’s Good: The Life Without Plastic toothbrush is the only completely plastic-free toothbrush I have found. If your priority is to completely avoid plastic, this could be the toothbrush for you. And I love that the manufacturer uses such a small amount of packaging.
Less than Perfect: The bristles come from long-haired pigs that are raised for food. If you are vegetarian or vegan, this is not a toothbrush for you. But if you eat meat and see value in using part of the animal that would have gone to waste, this toothbrush might be your best bet. By the way, Jay from Life Without Plastic says they will continue to look for a natural AND vegetarian option.
How it Works: Honestly? I don’t know. I am a vegetarian and don’t want to try it. But if you try it, let us know how it works out for you.
Other Toothbrush Options
The three toothbrushes reviewed above are the only ones I seriously considered for this post. But there are other options that contain varying degrees of plastic, so I thought I would mention them.
Radius Source toothbrush: The durable toothbrush handle is made from recycled materials (flax, wood, or dollar bills.) But the disposable toothbrush head is made from plastic and is not taken back for recycling. What’s more, the toothbrush comes in a plastic blister pack.
Swissco wooden toothbrush with natural bristles: The toothbrush itself is plastic-free (although not vegetarian) but it comes in a hard plastic case.
Acca Kappa toothbrush with natural bristles: The Acca Kappa handle is made from cellulose acetate, which is produced from wood and cotton byproducts. The bristles are not vegetarian. And sadly, the toothbrush comes in a plastic container.
Neem Chew Sticks
And now, for a completely different alternative, I’m considering skipping the toothbrush altogether and chewing on sticks.
In researching toothbrush options for this post, I discovered something called Miswak sewak, used in the Arab world for natural toothbrushing. You peel off the bark at the tip and then chew the end to separate the fibers. Then you use the fibers to brush your teeth, and when they wear out, you cut off the tip and work your way down the stick. I thought it sounded like a neat idea, except all the miswak sticks come sealed in plastic.
Then Jay mentioned they are similar to Neem sticks which have been used for centuries in India. And today, I discovered a company called Neem Tree Farms in the United States, which ships Neem Sticks fresh the same day they are harvested. I was assured they can be shipped without plastic packaging (in fact, the web site recommends not storing them in plastic), so I ordered a batch today to try.
Neem Tree Farms has farms in Florida and Mexico. The company also sells seedlings so you can grow your own, but I have to see how I feel about the sticks first. That will be a post for another day.
And my next oral care dilemma will be finding a good plastic-free toothpaste replacement, now that Tom’s of Maine has switched to plastic tubes. I’ve gotten lots of advice from people, but I can always use more.