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Is it time to change your toothbrush?

Is it time to change your toothbrush?

Subodh Juwatkar
  • Every year, millions of toothbrushes end up in our landfills and wash up on our shores, most of them made of plastic. What can we do to improve this situation?

Most discussions around the environment and sustainability initiated by the media and popular Internet videos are often based on some globally accepted data which may not even be relevant to our country. So I thought I’d rather write on sustainability by using an example which we all can relate easily and also use on a day-to-day basis, something where we can see an impact being made on a day-to-day basis.

I was talking to my 11-year-old son one Sunday morning and I asked him, “What do you think is the biggest stress to our city environment?” Without hesitating, he answered, “Plastic! All the plastic that we throw out is our biggest problem.” He had given me such a common answer but in that moment, I let it pass.

One toothbrush every year for 17.5 million people is a lot of toothbrushes purchased and thrown as city waste in Mumbai.

Later that morning, when I was picking up his toothbrush — which he had left on top of the washing machine as usual — something clicked for me. “Shouldn’t this toothbrush transfer sustainability on a day-on-day basis?” My mental machinery started spinning in full gear.

The toothbrushes that we use are made of plastic and nylon. Their handles are plastic and the bristles are Nylon-6. Both these materials stay in the environment for over 400 years without disintegrating. In addition to this, most toothbrushes come in their own plastic packaging, thus worsening the problem.

There are about 18.3 million people in Mumbai. Assuming that infants don’t use toothbrushes because they don’t have teeth yet, we still have 17.5 million people with teeth. Now, aren’t we all supposed to change our toothbrush at least once every three months, or when the bristles become unruly? Most of us are usually lazy and will carry on with our old toothbrush for at least six months before tossing it out. Even so, two toothbrushes every year for 17.5 million people is a lot of toothbrushes purchased and thrown as city waste. People who are on business trips or vacations might use single-use toothbrushes provided by their hotels, further adding to the number. In one year, these 35 million toothbrushes would be enough to bury the landfills of Mumbai alone. Had you ever imagined before today that our toothbrushes could be such a serious issue?

Toothbrushes can be made from two elements — bamboo fibre (instead of the plastic handle) and Nylon-4 (instead of Nylon-6 bristles)

Assuming we live an average life of 70 years, we will all produce at least 3-4 kgs of toothbrush waste in our lifetime. With 17.5 million people, we are looking at an awful 70,000 tonnes of plastic to deal with. Mumbai is home to 1.52 per cent of India’s population, and we live in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, second only to China. Assuming everyone is going to brush their teeth for 70 years or so, our landfills are going to be filled with tons of colourful toothbrush waste waiting for 400 years or longer to break down.

But perhaps this same toothbrush can be converted into our sustainability element. In order to become more environmentally friendly, the toothbrush can be made from two elements — a sustainably produced bamboo fibre (instead of the plastic handle) and Nylon-4 (instead of the Nylon-6 bristles).

Nylon-4 breaks down in about four months, and bamboo is completely biodegradable. Both of these can be used to entirely replace the current version of toothbrush we use. Also, since the toothbrush is going to become wet, a carbonisation process needs to be done to prevent fungus from growing on the handle.

Most plastic toothbrushes don’t get picked up to be recycled, either because they are not all made of the same material or they are disposed of at different lifetimes.

If this comes to fruition, we would suddenly be eliminating tonnes of plastic waste each year consisting of toothbrushes alone, thus giving us measurable change.

It is estimated that 700 million toothbrushes are sold every year in India. Indian companies like Patanjali and Dabur should consider taking up the initiative of sustainable production. Giants like HUL and Colgate-Palmolive, who currently account for 70 per cent of the market share when it comes to oral healthcare products, are busy making orthodox toothbrushes. Unlike plastic bottles or pouches, most of these toothbrushes won’t even get picked up to be recycled, either because they are not all made of the same material or they are disposed of at different lifetimes, making collection a difficult task.

It is now for all of us to become aware and drive a campaign to propel media, policy-makers, manufacturers, and environment and sustainability professionals to convince them to start manufacturing sustainable toothbrushes in India. Some have already begun in a small way, but getting every household to make a switch would lead to a big change.

Caution: Stay aware of manufacturers quoting Nylon-4 and using Nylon-6 instead.

View Comments (15)
  • Wow! This is some perspective Subodh! Again a pointer to the fact that several small initiatives can make multiple large impacts! Thank you for sharing this perspective with me. Informative and useful!

  • This article has laid the path to have sustainable tooth brushes. Never thought this small toothbrush can affect so much. Seriously manufacture giants in healthcare industry should consider opting the option given by Subodh. Thanks Subodh.

  • Very well written Subodh !! Thought to ponder upon. Thanks for bringing up this topic. We owe this responsibility to our nature and high time now to start acting.

  • Very well written Subodh !! Thought to ponder upon. We owe a responsibility to act on such issues . Thanks for sharing such an insightful article !!

  • Awesomely captured the gist. I would never be able to look at my plastic toothbrush in the same manner !! Time to switch in favour of the environment.

  • Great Article Subodh.

    However a few of my concerns with using bamboo or wood in place of plastic is the concept of sustainability.

    – Using cultivable land for growing bamboo plantations (I saw this with a palm oil importing in Malaysia)
    – Resources such as water and fertilizers and other agricultural equipment for bamboo plantations
    – Cost of a toothbrush which Indians barely can afford a brush for Rs 10-15 would significantly go higher.

    Factors will come in with regards to affordability as well as cutting trees in addition to mass plantations would be a negative outcome but then plastic poisoning would be another negative outcome. Coming back to being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    PS: I need to read up on Nylon – 4 bristles whether they do disintegrate in 4 months.

    • Hi Joshua! I’m glad you’re asking these questions. My views on your deliberation –

      The cost of damage to the environment and human life is always going to be higher than the cost of cheaper toothbrushes. People should be ready to pay an initial high cost.

      Assuming that most people today even in remote areas can spend on their monthly internet package – paying for a sustainable toothbrush once every quarter shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.

      On the other hand – the cost of collecting toothbrush waste from the environment can be a very high one and unfortunately there is no certain way to collect all of it at whatever high cost..

      A lot of our ground water table resources and oceans are going to be filled with micro-fragments of these decaying brushes lying there for ages only waiting to be lodged into our livers and kidneys one day. Toothbrush would be anytime cheaper than having a dialysis or a liver disease.. this is just one example.. there can be so many ill outcomes..

      Assam right now has the capacity for these plantations and also the intelligence.. There are strains of bamboo available which can be an answer to these – it could take care of the water and agriculture practices footprint. The output is a cheaper material.

      Also this is only an ideation – assuming that every quarter the toothbrushes have to be discarded – there is no need to stick to Bamboo – infact a lot of other cheaper and biodegradable options can be thought of and prices could come down anywhere between 70-80 per piece. They’re right now priced high because dental care giants aren’t into this business yet.

      “There has to be a strong will.. more than just an Idea..” The will to free up our land and water from toxic plastic waste arising out of irresponsible practices.. other ideas will flow..

      The solution, according to economists, activists and the design community, will be to get smarter about both the design and disposal of materials, and shift responsibility away from local governments and into the hands of manufacturers.

    • Hi Sajid!

      Nylon4 is a petroleum (fossil fuel) based plastic that is said to biodegrade within a much shorter time as compared to its other counterparts. Nylon4 is obtained by anionic polymerization of 2-pyrrolidone, which can be produced from plant matter.
      Nylon4 seems to be biodegradable (≠ compostable), as studies like this one suggest – (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2769161/)

      Many suppliers have been selling fake Nylon4 primarily also because of the lack of manufacturers. You may have to consult with a polymer technology expert here for sourcing of the right material.

      Like I said earlier – it is very important to shift responsibility into the hands of manufacturers so that they get smarter about both the design and disposal of materials.

  • Thanks for this article Subodh, time for Companies manufacturing oral care products to market the biodegradable toothbrush and Respected governing agencies to strictly bring in laws if not already available

  • Hi Subhodh, Really an Eye-opener article and its time to think about it. Yes, I do agree with Mr.Joshua de Souza. However, Thanks for sharing this message. A small initiative can lead to large movement.

  • Many an anti plastic campaigns were there but folding very quickly for lack of viable alternatives put forth. Or half-hearted attempts. Subodh has presented , with straightforward facts you and me can understand without scratching our heads, the damaging impact caused to our city environment by a seemingly harmless tooth brush. What we appreciate is that he made it a point to come out with an alternative product that can be produced and marketed with least of obstacles.i

  • Very well written and such type of awareness is really control the damage to the environment caused by plastics ! HUL and Colgate should really think for manufacturing wooden tooth brushes as you said, with mass production to keep the cost affordable to poor people !

  • Thank you for such a well written and a very thought provoking article Subodh!! This actually bought back memories of how people earlier used datun or a piece of wood of some plant to brush their teeth..our forefathers were more environmentally friendly than us .. this article again forces us to think what lifestyle changes we can implement and you also have suggested a solution or an alternate to the plastic toothbrushes..thank you! Please do keep sharing such insightful articles to create awareness.

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