Q. Dear Umbra,

Do any 100-percent compostable or recyclable toothbrushes exist outside of boar bristle brushes? I’m trying to eliminate all landfill waste from my bath and cosmetic products, but sticking a pig-tasting brush in my mouth is less than appealing. 

Elizabeth L.
St. Paul, Minnesota

A. Dearest Elizabeth,

If I were to write a book about going zero-waste in the bathroom — and from soap to TP to lip balm, there’s certainly enough fodder for one — I’d have to devote an entire chapter to dental hygiene alone. We’d need to cover floss, of course, plus toothpaste, tongue scrapers, and the greenest way to keep one’s grill sparkling-clean. So I’m a bit relieved that you’re asking only about toothbrushes. Those, at least, we can handle in one column.

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The gurus over at the American Dental Association recommend that we swap out toothbrushes every three to four months — so each one of us diligent brushers might be tearing through 320 or more of these bristly plastic sticks in our lifetimes. Picture everyone in St. Paul tossing that many brushes into the landfill, and those slim dental tools start to add up, don’t they? So it’s smart to do what we can do reduce such throwaways.

Luckily, Elizabeth, I don’t believe that requires resigning yourself to porcine mouth twice a day. True, boar bristle brushes are indeed an option, and they will biodegrade (unlike the nylon that makes up your standard bristles). I have never used one, but my research has uncovered both positive and negative reviews: It seems some people complain of a “funky” odor, but note that it fades fairly quickly. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that boar bristles are often stiffer than the average toothbrush’s, which can be rough on your enamel. Boar bristles are also usually sourced as a byproduct of the meat industry in China or India, which, depending on your views on animal products, might make this a no-go for you. And then there’s just the plain old gross factor, which sounds like it applies here (hey, I get it).

There is one more type of 100-percent compostable dental tool out there: the chew stick or neem stick. These are literally sticks from the neem tree that you nibble into a bristly tip, carefully use to brush your chompers, then trim before your next brushing session. They sound rather primitive, I know (and indeed, have been used for centuries), but I found one study reporting they’re on par with regular toothbrushes when it comes to removing plaque and other measures of dental health. I haven’t used one of these either, so I can’t endorse ‘em myself. But if you’re truly devoted to your zero-waste goals, they might be something to try. (Talk to your dentist first though, won’t you?)

And if these two totally compostable options are just too odd? That’s OK. We can still reduce our toothbrush-related waste without going that far. And while every little bit counts, I also believe in not sweating the small stuff — and the bristles on your toothbrush most definitely qualify as small stuff. So let’s brush up on a few not-entirely-biodegradable-but-still-eco-friendlier tools.

You can find several toothbrushes with biodegradable handles out there, even if not bristles: A few companies fashion theirs out of bamboo, that quick-growing, light-on-the-land woody grass we environmentalists also like for our sheets, flooring, and bike frames. This bamboo brand has further reduced its plastic content by making its bristles from 62 percent castor bean oil. This company makes its brushes from compostable bioplastic using “leftover plant material from American farms.” Some of these brushes have “binchotan charcoal” bristles, but know that these scrubbers are typically charcoal-infused nylon, which means the bristles are still not biodegradable. When it’s time for a new brush, these companies often suggest ripping out the nylon bristles with pliers before composting the handles — which actually sounds like a nice stress reliever to me.

Then there are the toothbrushes that are recycled and/or recyclable. These guys produce handles from recycled #5 plastic that can be recycled again in some curbside programs (but check with your local recyclers, as not everyone will accept them). This toothbrush is made from recycled yogurt containers, and you can give it new life when you’re done through the Gimme 5 drop-off/mail-in program. Similarly, TerraCycle accepts brushes from Colgate. As we’ve recently discussed, buying recycled stuff when we need to acquire new items helps to support the recycling market, so it’s a smart move.

One more option for you and your pearly whites, Elizabeth: toothbrushes with replaceable heads, which let you keep your handle basically ad infinitum. This one looks like your typical brush, while this one (made of recycled wood and paper) has a certain funky charm, and this recycled aluminum one is pure modernist chic. Bet you haven’t thought about your toothbrush as a style statement before, eh?

Best of luck on your zero-waste journey. It can be a twisty road with many challenges, but I bet you’ll find it worthwhile. In the meantime, I wish you fresh breath and zero cavities.

Oral-healthfully,
Umbra