How your toothbrush became part of the plastic crisis

The total number of toothbrushes used and discarded each year has been steadily increasing since the introduction of the first plastic toothbrush in the 1930s. For centuries, toothbrushes have been made from natural materials, but in the early 20th century, manufacturers began to use nylon and other plastics to make toothbrushes. Plastic is virtually non-degradable, which means that almost every toothbrush made since the 1930s still exists somewhere in the form of garbage.

The best invention of all time?

It turns out that people really like brushing their teeth. An MIT poll in 2003 found that toothbrushes were valued more than cars, personal computers, and mobile phones because respondents were more likely to say they couldn’t live without them.

Archaeologists have found “tooth sticks” in Egyptian tombs. The Buddha chewed the twigs to brush his teeth. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder noted that “teeth will be stronger if you pick them with a porcupine feather,” and the Roman poet Ovid argued that washing your teeth every morning is a good idea. 

Dental care occupied the mind of the Chinese Hongzhi Emperor in the late 1400s, who invented the brush-like device we all know today. It had short thick boar bristles shaved from the neck of a pig and set into a bone or wooden handle. This simple design has existed unchanged for several centuries. But boar bristles and bone handles were expensive materials, so only the rich could afford brushes. Everyone else had to make do with chewing sticks, scraps of cloth, fingers, or nothing at all. In the early 1920s, only one in four people in the United States owned a toothbrush.

War changes everything

It was not until the late 19th century that the concept of dental care for all, rich and poor, began to seep into the public consciousness. One of the driving forces behind this transition was war.

In the middle of the 19th century, during the American Civil War, guns were loaded one shot at a time, with gunpowder and bullets that were pre-wrapped in rolled heavy paper. The soldiers had to tear the paper with their teeth, but the condition of the teeth of the soldiers did not always allow this. Obviously this was the problem. The Army of the South recruited dentists to provide preventive care. For example, one army dentist forced the soldiers of his unit to keep their toothbrushes in their buttonholes so that they were easily accessible at all times.

It took two more major military mobilizations to get toothbrushes in almost every bathroom. By the start of World War II, soldiers were being trained in dental care, dentists were being introduced into battalions, and toothbrushes were being handed out to military personnel. When the fighters returned home, they brought with them the habit of brushing their teeth.

“The Right Path to American Citizenship”

At the same time, attitudes towards oral hygiene were changing throughout the country. Dentists began to view dental care as a social, moral, and even patriotic issue. “If bad teeth could be prevented, it would be of great benefit to the state and the individual, since it is amazing how many diseases are indirectly associated with bad teeth,” wrote one dentist in 1904.

Social movements touting the benefits of healthy teeth have spread across the country. In many cases, these campaigns have targeted the poor, immigrant and marginalized populations. Oral hygiene has often been used as a way to “Americanize” communities.

Plastic absorption

As the demand for toothbrushes grew, so did production, aided by the introduction of new plastics.

In the early 1900s, chemists discovered that a mixture of nitrocellulose and camphor, a fragrant oily substance derived from camphor laurel, could be made into a strong, shiny, and sometimes explosive material. The material, called “celluloid”, was cheap and could be molded into any shape, perfect for making toothbrush handles.

In 1938, a Japanese national laboratory developed a thin, silky substance that it hoped would replace the silk used to make parachutes for the military. Almost simultaneously, the American chemical company DuPont released its own fine-fiber material, nylon.

Silky, durable and at the same time flexible material turned out to be an excellent replacement for expensive and brittle boar bristles. In 1938, a company called Dr. West’s began equipping the heads of their “Dr. West Miracle Brushes” with nylon bristles. The synthetic material, according to the company, cleaned better and lasted longer than the old natural bristle brushes. 

Since then, celluloid has been replaced by newer plastics and bristle designs have become more complex, but brushes have always been plastic.

A future without plastic?

The American Dental Association suggests that everyone change their toothbrushes every three to four months. Thus, more than one billion toothbrushes are thrown away every year in the US alone. And if everyone around the world followed these recommendations, about 23 billion toothbrushes would end up in nature every year. Many toothbrushes are not recyclable because the composite plastics from which most toothbrushes are now made are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to recycle efficiently.

Today, some companies are returning to natural materials such as wood or boar bristles. Bamboo brush handles can solve part of the problem, but most of these brushes have nylon bristles. Some companies have gone back to designs that were originally introduced almost a century ago: toothbrushes with removable heads. 

It is very difficult to find brush options without plastic. But any option that reduces the total amount of material and packaging used is a step in the right direction. 

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