By now, we all understand the importance of environmentally conscious practices like recycling. If you have young children, they’re probably exclaiming all the benefits of recycling they learned at school. We’re raising youngsters to become mindful adults, but what the adults do now is what will ultimately set the stage for our future.
Compostable products are part of setting that stage. If we’re loading up the landfills before our children will ever be old enough to see their own garbage bills, we’re setting them up for a rough and rocky future on this planet. Even if you try to recycle as much as possible, you still can’t recycle everything. Your toothbrush, for example, needs to go to a landfill where it will spend an eternity sitting around. Unless, of course, that toothbrush is compostable.
Toothbrushes are usually made of molded plastic handles with nylon bristles. Some of them have soft rubber grips or other rubber components. Plastic and nylon can both be problematic materials for a clean planet, especially when you consider how they’re used in the manufacturing process.
Little pellets of polyethylene and polypropylene plastic are melted and injected into a mold that forms the handle of the toothbrush. This is typically new plastic, which is a major issue. Most toothbrush manufacturers did not even consider the idea of using post consumer plastic in toothbrush handles, likely because they feared consumers might have been put off by the idea that something they put in their mouth was made of plastic someone else previously used.
It wasn’t until the year 2020 that mainstream toothbrush manufacturers had started to seriously consider using recycled materials to make toothbrushes. Dental companies have started to understand that people are a little more conscious about new plastic being created just to be disposed of later. These recycled toothbrushes have recently started to hit the market, but they aren’t touted as the most popular offerings by these companies.
The bristles of the toothbrush are made of tiny bundles of nylon, affixed to the plastic handle with small metal fasteners. Nylon is a synthetic material created through chemical polymerization. Nylon is not easily recyclable. Only specialty recycling programs take nylon, and they’re particular about the types of nylon they’ll take. It’s even less recyclable when you consider the fact that there’s no real way to separate it from the toothbrush its attached to.
The Lifespan of a Toothbrush
The majority of dentists recommend ditching your toothbrush for a new one every three month. Over time, the bristles begin to splay and make the toothbrush essentially ineffective. Even if you’re a stickler about keeping your toothbrush clean, there’s still the possibility that little bits of invisible bacteria have begun to form tiny little colonies on it. It’s best to play it safe and get rid of your toothbrush after that three month period, even if it looks perfectly fine.
This means that a family of four would throw away 16 toothbrushes per year, or 160 per decade. The average size of a household in America is about 3 people. There are about 125.5 million households in America. If everyone is following the dentists’ recommendations, the United States is tossing out 1,506,000,000 toothbrushes every year.
This equates to 66,403,233 pounds of plastic waste every 365 days - and that’s all toothbrushes. That’s 664 million pounds of plastic per decade on a single consumable. And that plastic sits in a heap in a landfill.
What Happens in a Landfill?
More than half of the total waste generated in the United States goes to landfills. Landfills aren’t designed to dissolve, degrade, or incinerate this waste. They’re simply giant lots of land tucked out of the way where we throw garbage to keep it from becoming a nuisance. Food waste creates methane gas, and some landfills are equipped to help that methane dissipate. All other kinds of waste do not generate anything.
The modern toothbrush was invented in 1938, and the plastic it was made of was never designed to break down. That design feature never changed. Theoretically, about 5.5 billion pounds of toothbrushes are still sitting in landfills, and they will continue to sit there for the foreseeable future.
Plastic can take about 1,000 years to decompose. As the population continues to grow exponentially, we’ll never reach a zero sum of toothbrushes. It will be more than 900 years from now when the very first toothbrush to ever reach a landfill will have completely disintegrated. By then, billions more will have taken its place.
The Landfills are Full
The Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol expects that the 2,000 active landfills in the United States will reach capacity within the next 18 years. This will be within most of our lifetimes. Some states have already hit capacity in their landfills. States with densely populated cities, like New York, already export their trash to other states. We’re running out of places to put the garbage.
The United States burns a limited amount of waste to create energy. Burning trash creates harmful emissions, so burns need to be conducted carefully. Some countries have systems to scrub the fumes from burning trash to reduce the impact of the emissions, but the US isn’t there yet.
So how are we going to solve the problem of overfilled landfills? The scary truth of the matter is that we don’t really know yet. All we can do is strive to change our behaviors today to reduce the impact they’ll have tomorrow. One of the best ways to avoid filling up landfills is to switch to eco friendly, biodegradable, and compostable products.
What Are Compostable Toothbrushes Made Of?
If you’re supposed to throw something away every three months, it doesn’t need to be made of titanium. This is something that manufacturers were very slow to realize, but they’re beginning to catch on. It used to be that people wanted to buy things that lasted forever, but people never keep things forever. Now, we’re manufacturing disposables with materials that will only last for as long as we need them to.
Compostable toothbrushes are usually made of materials like bamboo. Untreated bamboo cannot and will not last forever, and that’s the entire point. Toothbrushes, like food products, have an expiration date. Your bamboo brush will be ready to expire at the right time.
Alternative compostable materials used to make toothbrushes are hardened corn starch, corn fibers, tapioca, boar bristles, charcoal, and sugarcane. If you’re a vegan, you might want to pay attention to the packaging of your compostable toothbrush. Boar bristles are the byproduct of pork manufacturing, which may conflict with vegan or vegetarian ethics.
Boar bristles are a natural material, so the phrase “made with natural materials” without specifications may indicate their presence. Err on the side of caution.
Compostable Toothbrushes in Landfills
Bamboo takes anywhere from 3 months to 4 years to fully decompose. Smaller, untreated pieces of bamboo, like the kind used to make compostable toothbrushes, will usually fully decompose within a year. Untreated bamboo is a completely natural material. When it decomposes, it simply creates new soil. It won’t add any chemicals to the ground that can pollute or contaminate groundwater.
When you throw away a compostable toothbrush, it’s only just visiting the landfill. Its stay is very brief, and it won’t leave anything behind when it’s fully gone. If you don’t want your compostable toothbrush visiting a landfill, you can compost it at home. If you only compost, you can toss your toothbrush in with everything else. If you’re more of a gardener than a composter, there’s a simple alternative.
Bamboo toothbrushes can be buried in your yard. Cut or shred your bamboo toothbrush, leave it in water for a few days, and bury it in your vegetable garden. Bamboo has a naturally high silica content, and silica can facilitate the growth of healthy, disease free plants. When you’re done with your toothbrush, you can effectively turn it into dessert by using it to treat the soil for your strawberries.
Using a toothbrush and throwing it away when we’re done with it is something we’ve always taken for granted. It isn’t until we observe the math and effects from a distance that we realize that these little pieces of plastic really create irreversible damage that we’ll spend thousands of years trying to correct. Toothbrushes are just one of many things that are causing problems we do not yet have solutions for.
Switching to a compostable toothbrush is an easy decision. Switching to compostable versions of almost every disposable product is an easy decision. Modern compostables are strong and sturdy enough to last for exactly as long as they’re needed and not a moment more. When you’re buying something destined for the trash at some point in the near future, you might want to think twice about your purchase.