Should You Swap To A Bamboo Toothbrush To Reduce Your Environmental Impact?
In recent years, bamboo toothbrushes have become the epitome of sustainable living. They’ve gone mainstream, and it’s not unusual to spot one on the shelves of your local supermarket today.
Humans have had some sort of ‘toothbrush’ for hundreds and hundreds of years. Roman author Pliny the Elder noted that picking teeth with a porcupine quill made them ‘firm’. The Buddha apparently chewed sticks to give them a fluffy end and used this to clean his teeth.
From the 1400s onwards a type of toothbrush was used, with a dense pack of pig hair bristles set into a bone or wood handle — by those who could afford it, for the rest it was chewing sticks, scraps of clothes, or brushing with their fingers. As late as the early 1920s, only an estimated one in four people in the United States owned a toothbrush.
Then, along came plastic. Soon after, synthetic bristles for toothbrushes were invented when a Japanese laboratory came up with a fine substance they hoped would make a good substitute for silk — known today as nylon. And so, the toothbrush as we know it today was born.
Unlike the synthetic, man-made plastic and nylon toothbrush, bamboo is a natural material, coming straight from the bamboo plant. It’s fast-growing, plant-based, and 100% biodegradable. And so, it has become the sustainable material of choice — for toothbrushes and much much more.
But is replacing your plastic toothbrush with one made from bamboo really the best option if you want to reduce your environmental impact?
Bamboo toothbrushes: the pros
Most standard toothbrushes are made from polypropylene plastic for the handle and nylon for the bristles. Both of these materials are derived directly from fossil fuels, and therefore are fuelling the industry primarily responsible for climate change.
It also means they are not biodegradable, and they’re also very difficult to recycle as they’re made up of lots of small parts of plastic moulded together. Therefore, every plastic toothbrush that gets thrown away — and that’s 23 billion per year worldwide, assuming we replace them on average every 3 months — stays on our planet, clogging up landfill and our seas.
Bamboo, on the other hand, is a completely natural material. The bamboo plant is fast-growing and can be harvested within 3–5 years of planting. It needs very little water and does not need pesticides. It also grows in a variety of different environments. As a material, then, it clearly has a much lower carbon footprint to produce than plastic does.
Bamboo, being a natural material, is also completely biodegradable, breaking down in compost within around 6 months. This means the handle of a bamboo toothbrush can be put in your compost when you’re finished, or planted in your garden.
However, no material or product is ever going to be entirely perfect when it comes to sustainability, and toothbrushes made from bamboo are no exception to that rule.
Bamboo toothbrushes: the cons
Whilst bamboo is certainly a more environmentally-friendly material than plastic, there are a couple of issues. The majority of bamboo is grown and manufactured in China, meaning that if you’re living outside of Asia there will be carbon emissions associated with transport to factor into your toothbrush purchase. The high demand for bamboo as a material has now also meant that much land in China is being re-planted as bamboo, meaning that ecosystems are being changed, which is always risky business.
Then there’s the main downfall of bamboo toothbrushes: the bristles.
Whilst the handle can easily be made from biodegradable bamboo, bristles are much tricker. The vast majority of toothbrush bristles, even on bamboo toothbrushes, are made from nylon. Some are made from Nylon-6, a material which never biodegrades. Others are made from Nylon-4, which is often claimed to be biodegradable. It isn’t. Or, more accurately, it is, under the ‘right conditions’. Which translates to that it can biodegrade, in artificially created laboratory conditions.
If you’ve ever searched for bamboo toothbrushes on sites like Amazon, you’ll be hit with a barrage of options claiming to be ‘100% eco friendly’ or ‘completely compostable’. If you look closer, most of them have these nylon-6 bristles. It’s a classic example of brands greenwashing —essentially taking advantage of customers looking for sustainable options with items which are not truly sustainable. Often, they’ll arrive on your doorstep in plastic packaging, the ultimate irony and annoyance.
The only bristles you’ll find which are completely biodegradable are ones made from animal hair, usually pig hair. This may be a good option, depending on your ethics around animals. I certainly wouldn’t opt for this.
What the bristle problem means is that you cannot put your average bamboo toothbrush in the compost, because the bristles would not break down. You need to pluck the bristles out of the toothbrush before composting, which is just as much of a faff as it sounds.
Another issue with bamboo toothbrushes is that, whilst the material is more sustainable, it’s still ultimately a disposable item and therefore perpetuating that throwaway society which is at the root of these problems. Most dentists recommend switching your toothbrush every 3 months. Over a lifetime, that’s still a bunch of wasted resources.
So, should you buy a bamboo toothbrush?
If we’re simply looking at plastic toothbrush vs bamboo toothbrush, it’s a no brainer. Yes, you should swap to a bamboo toothbrush if you want to reduce your environmental impact. It’s a super simple swap that most of us could make immediately, without inconveniencing us much.
It’s also great that people have started thinking consciously about the impact of day-to-day items like toothbrushes, and where they end up at the end of their life in our bathrooms. It’s a great place to start with thinking about the wider subject of our environmental impact as humans.
However, it’s clear that there are still issues with the environmental impact of bamboo toothbrushes, as outlined above.
A better option may be to look at toothbrushes which have a reusable handle, meaning that when you swap your toothbrush for a new one, you’re only changing the head and not the full toothbrush, minimizing waste. You can get bamboo toothbrushes with a replaceable head, like this one from Sustainable Living. You can also get toothbrush handles made from long-lasting, recyclable materials such as this aluminium one from Goodwell.
It’s also worth saying that, in the grand scheme of things, using a bamboo toothbrush isn’t going to do much to save the planet from the climate crisis.
That’s because there are a few much bigger factors which dominate our individual carbon footprints: the transport methods we use regularly, how we eat, and the energy we use to power our houses. So, if you’re serious about wanting to reduce your environmental impact, start with these factors. If you’re cycling and walking when possible, reducing the amount of meat and dairy in your diet, and using a renewable energy provider, then you’re already doing a great job at reducing your environmental impact. And if you want to opt for bamboo toothbrushes to go the extra step, then by all means do.
If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact:
- Is buying fair trade a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you buy dried or tinned beans?
- Is carbon offsetting a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you swap plastic bags for tote bags?
- Which kind of milk should you buy?
- Should you buy local produce?
- Should you swap liquid soap for solid soap bars?
- Should you buy clothes second-hand?
- Should you swap to paper straws?