Biodegradable Bamboo Toothbrush: Greenwashing or Eco-friendly?

Plastics are clogging up our oceans and filling landfills at an alarming rate, but many people claim that you can cut down on the harmful waste by making the switch to an all-natural, organic bamboo toothbrush that offers biodegradable solutions for the planet.

But are these claims accurate? Are these biodegradable bamboo brushes really eco-friendly, or are the claims more ‘greenwashing’ designed to take advantage of eco-conscious consumers?

Buying Organic Bamboo Toothbrushes: Does It Really Make a Difference?

You get it. Global warming, trash islands the size of Texas in the ocean, landfills full of trash, deforestation – it’s hard to listen to the news without realizing that our modern lifestyle isn’t very good for the environment. The problem is that it’s good for people – we’re living longer, richer, and healthier than ever before.

Many products claim to ‘make a difference’ for the planet by being ‘biodegradable.’ And while that is true for many things, greenwashing schemes aren’t uncommon. The claims of ‘biodegradable plastics’ aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, essentially because to get that substance to biodegrade (either eco-plastic or even a sustainable material like Bamboo10), it often requires specific conditions, which are out of the equation for many consumers.

Toothbrushes: The Plastic Problem

The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends that you change your toothbrush about every three months.1 The population of the US is about 330,000,000 people, so the US alone should be using over 1.2 billion toothbrushes every year – and most of them are plastic. That’s enough to wrap around the world four times – and remember, this is just the US’s toothbrushes for one year. According to National Geographic, “…because plastic is essentially indestructible, that means nearly every single toothbrush made since the 1930s is still out in the world somewhere, living as a piece of trash. 2

This is before considering the fact that plastics are typically petroleum byproducts, meaning that extraction, purification, and manufacturing of plastic all pollute the planet. And although recycling can help, only about 9% of global plastic is recycled.3

Obviously, since maintaining good dental hygiene is important and we can’t stop brushing our teeth, that’s where organic bamboo toothbrushes have come into play. But in order to really solve the problem, it’s simply not enough to buy biodegradable products or bamboo alternatives.

To reach zero net carbon emissions, the brush itself needs to be completely carbon neutral.

8 billion trees blue graphic image illustrating the lasting effects of plastics in the ocean and marine life using images of water bottles, plastics, and a fish

How Can Bamboo Help? Benefits Over Plastic

Bamboo is an eco-friendly material that has natural antimicrobial properties, so it’s the perfect alternative to plastic toothbrushes.4 But in addition to the specialized decomposition requirements, there’s also a carbon footprint for the production of that ‘eco-friendly’ product, so choosing a fully carbon-neutral product is the key.

Although some bamboo products require specialized decomposition and composting processes, they are still an improvement over a plastic alternative. As a type of grass, bamboo is natural and can’t accumulate in your cells like plastic can. Accumulation of microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic shed from larger pieces such as water bottles) in the human body are a known issue when dealing with plastics (even plastic water bottles release them), and scientists have theorized that this accumulation may be toxic.5

Typical toothbrush bristles are made of nylons (which are not generally de-composable) or other non-biodegradable materials, but they don’t have to be, and some responsible companies make toothbrush bristles out of bamboo.2,6 Another disadvantage of plastic toothbrushes, however, is that plastic and nylon don’t have antimicrobial properties like bamboo, so bacteria can grow on them uninhibited.7

Does Plastic Transmit Chemicals?

The unfortunate truth is yes, plastics do transmit chemicals and they’re becoming increasing harder to avoid.8 You probably can’t even pronounce most of them, but feel free to check out the associated links if you’re interested. Not only can plastics transmit chemicals to the environment, but scientists believe that the accumulation of microplastics can be toxic to people as well.5

Even food-grade plastics can shed toxic chemicals like BPA, which is bad because (according to the Mayo Clinic), “Exposure to BPA is a concern because of possible health effects of BPA on the brain and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children. It can also affect children’s behavior. Additional research suggests a possible link between BPA and increased blood pressure.9

Green Properties of ‘Carbon Neutral’ Bamboo

Regardless of how great an ‘eco-friendly’, biodegradable, or bamboo toothbrush is, there’s still a carbon cost for any manufactured product. For example, electric vehicles are great for reducing the greenhouse gases created while driving, but the electric generation (for charging the vehicle) still produces CO2, and the manufacturing process to build the car also comes with a pretty hefty footprint.

That’s why finding carbon-neutral products are so essential to the planet’s restoration. For a product to be considered ‘net zero’ (aka carbon neutral) it means that everything associated with its production, shipping (either to a store or directly to the consumer), and use has been accounted for and the carbon emissions erased.

That might seem impossible, but it’s not. It simply requires complete transparency and applicable methods to ensure that any carbon emissions are sequestered, typically using offset projects and credits (like forestry projects that plant trees and rebuild eco-systems to help fight climate change by sequestering CO211).

These products are out there! Finding them just takes a little extra effort. However, tiny acts can have a big impact on our planet, and committing to these changes can add up fast.


References

1The American Dental Association. (2020, 11 15). Oral Health Topics. Retrieved from The American Dental Association. <https://www.ada.org/en/member-center/oral-health-topics/toothbrushes>

2Borunda, A. (2019, June 14). How Your Toothbrush Became Part of the Plastic Crisis. Retrieved from National Geographic. <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/story-of-plastic-toothbrushes/#close>

3Cho, R. (2012, January 31st). What Happens to all of that Plastic? Retrieved from State of the Planet – Earth Institute: <https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/31/what-happens-to-all-that-plastic/>

4Xi, L. Q. (2013). Resistance of natural bamboo fiber to microorganisms and factors that may affect such resistance. BioResources, 6501-6509. Retrieved from <https://bioresources.cnr.ncsu.edu/resources/resistance-of-natural-bamboo-fiber-to-microorganisms-and-factors-that-may-affect-such-resistance/>

5Kelly, S. L. (2017). Plastic and Human Health: A Micro Issue? Environmental Science & Technology, 6634-6647. Retrieved from <https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.7b00423>

6Yutaka, T., Buenaventurada, C. P., Charles, U. U., & Seiichi, A. (2009). Biodegradability of Plastics. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 3722-3742. Retrieved from <https://hos.ifas.ufl.edu/media/hosifasufledu/documents/Biodegradability-of-Plastics.pdf>

7Frazelle, M. R., & Munro, C. L. (2012). Toothbrush Contamination: A Review of the Literature. Nursing Research and Practice. Retrieved from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3270454/>

8Teuten, E. e. (2009). Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 2027-2045. Retrieved from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2873017/>

9Bauer, B. A. (n.d.). Healthy Lifestyle – Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Retrieved from The Mayo Clinic: <https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/bpa/faq-20058331>

10Koepke-Hill, B. e. (n.d.). Bamboo (Phyllostachys spp.). Retrieved from UT Extension: <https://extension.tennessee.edu/publications/documents/W220.pdf>

11Parr, J., Sullivan, L., Chen, B., Ye, G., & Zheng, W. (2010). Carbon bio-sequestration within the phytoliths of economic bamboo species. Global Change Biology, 2661-2667. Retrieved from <https://researchprofiles.canberra.edu.au/en/publications/carbon-bio-sequestration-within-the-phytoliths-of-economic-bamboo>