Toothbrushes are not going to Achieve Sustainability

A friend recently asked me, “What would you recommend for a Sustainable Toothbrush?” After a moment’s thought I gave up on being able to fit my response in a chat as I realized this question was actually a perfect window into a larger issue. I believe that one of the biggest barriers we face to Achieving Sustainability is our focus on small problems and solutions. Toothbrushes are a small problem and the potential solutions would add only microscopically to global Sustainability.

Why picking a Sustainable toothbrush could actually be bad for Achieving Sustainability

A quick internet search revealed that 50 million pounds of toothbrushes are landfilled annually in the US. This sounds like a lot but consider that it is less than 0.01% of US municipal solid waste. But plastic, you protest, is particularly bad! True but toothbrushes only make up 0.08% of the plastic we throw away, so clearly there must be some bigger plastic fish in that 99.92%. But its not just the small scale of the problem, there is also not a clear Sustainable solution, but lots of obfuscating options. A case could be made for anyone of them but I’d argue that we’d be best off to not try to choose at all. Why?

  1. Unintended consequences: With such a small impact the chances of unintended consequences outweighing the Sustainability benefits are quite large. For example: if you have to drive to a special store to buy your toothbrush you have almost certainly wiped out all benefit and than some.
  2. Cognitive Burden: Whether it is too much choice or the exigencies of poverty forcing one to make lots of high stakes decisions both puts a burden on our brain and has been shown to make us less happy, more stressed and do worse at things. Asking people to make (or feeling that one has to do so) the “right” Sustainable decision about every single thing would amount to an impossible cognitive burden. So we shouldn’t add trivial decisions (for Sustainability) to our already growing cognitive burdens.
  3. Appetite for Sustainability:Some people have huge appetites and some are much smaller but everyone’s willingness/capacity to take Sustainable actions which go against the grain is limited. We can’t afford to be using up people’s limited appetite with small impact actions.

Believe it or not I don’t have anything against toothbrushes — they just make an excellent example of a broader issue we face in Achieving Sustainability. I have the same issue with the individual actions we promote around water. Toothbrushes are a small problem with no clear solutions which themselves will have unintended consequences, impose a cognitive burden on people and use up their appetite for Sustainability!

T.I.P. can help us out here

Last month I proposed a framework for Sustainability solutions, Technology + Individual action + Policy (TIP). Within the individual action category, toothbrushes would not rank high because of a low impact and uncertainty about the impact though it would be fairly easy to implement. Also in thinking about this post I realized that the TIP categories don’t just have diminishing returns but there is also a limited capacity (appetite) in each of them as well. There are only so many research dollars that can be spent on Technology, so many policies that could be passed and implemented and only so many actions your typical individual is willing to take. So what does TIP have to suggest for toothbrushes? Individual action does not look promising nor can I think of any technology in the pipeline that would be a game changer so Policy may be the best approach. A simple bottle-return style charge of $.25 would hardly impact the price and assure that all brushes were collected and recycled, pushing the whole industry to become more closed loop as opposed to just a couple specialty brands.

Small actions can be beautiful too

While I am certainly critical of a focus on small impact Sustainability actions, there are two cases where their promotion is justified. 1) If it is a one off action, such as putting aerators on your faucets. These will result in only a very small reduction in water use but they also impose a very small cost because you do it once and that is it for years. 2) But the more important case is for small actions that are gateways to bigger ones. For example trying to go one day a week without meat is a starting point for building towards a much larger reduction in meat consumption. There is evidence that once people commit to a small action they are subsequently more willing to commit to a bigger one. Unfortunately toothbrushes don’t fit either case. So in the end buy whatever toothbrush you like and that best cleans your teeth. If doing that saves you a trip to the dentist it was certainly the most Sustainable decision.


Originally published at achievingsustainability.com on August 16, 2015.

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