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Bamboo Electric Toothbrushes Vs Other Toothbrush Types

Organically epic bamboo electric toothbrush
Photo from Organically Epic website

Summary

Bamboo electric toothbrushes have plastic handles with bamboo heads. Evidence is lacking, but it is possible that these are a more eco-friendly option than conventional electric toothbrushes.

At the time of writing, we found that bamboo electric toothbrushes are mostly made by small independent companies.

It is better to support smaller businesses who make efforts towards being more sustainable, just make sure you see evidence for their claims.

How does bamboo compare to plastic?

There seems to be an obsession with bamboo as a good material for sustainable products, from cutlery to toothpicks.

Bamboo can be a more environmentally friendly material than plastic. The overall impact depends on growing techniques, farming practices, and responsible disposal when the bamboo is no longer needed.

Depending on where the bamboo product is made in the world, bamboo may be a better option than wood, too.

At the moment there is no specific research into how bamboo electric toothbrushes compare to plastic ones.

The only way to be able to compare the carbon footprint and environmental of different products is to do a life-cycle analysis (LCA), and as yet an LCA has not been completed for bamboo vs plastic electric toothbrushes.

Below is an overview of how plastic compares to bamboo in terms of environmental impact.

The problem with plastic

  • It is damaging to the environment to make. Approximately 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. Fossil fuel based plastics require destruction of the natural environment  to get to the raw materials, from destroying forests, to drilling into the ocean floor.
  • Improper disposal pollutes natural areas. Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations. This causes a threat to local wildlife as the plastic is eaten or traps marine species.
  • Plastics break into smaller pieces, microplastics, as a result of UV radiation from the sun. These micro and nanoplastics can be eaten or drunk without even realising, and can cause harm such as physical obstructions and hormone imbalances. It is estimated that humans consume about 5g of plastic per week.
  • Newer “greener” plastics are also problematic:
    • Bio-based plastics use a renewable source instead of fossil fuels but the end product is still plastic and has the same disposal problems.
    • Degradable plastics require specialist recycling, and can break down into microplastics faster.
  • Because plastic doesn’t break down fully like organic materials (e.g. food), every piece ever made still exists, and making new plastics adds to the pile.

The benefits of bamboo

  • It is a renewable resource which is fast growing, and normally does not need any pesticides or fertilisers.
  • Bamboo root networks can help prevent soil erosion.
  • Project Drawdown lists bamboo production on degraded land as one of their recommendations for reducing worldwide carbon emissions. Bamboo is a cost effective solution to sequester carbon emissions and these savings could be even greater where bamboo is substituted for plastic, such as the case for dental products.
  • Bamboo  produces more oxygen than typical woody trees, and can sequester up to 1.78 tonnes of CO2 per “clump” per year (One Tree Planted says this is a CO2 drawdown curve that’s 10X faster than that of woody trees.)
  • It is a lightweight material, so has lower emissions related to transport compared to heavier materials. 

Negatives of bamboo

  • Planting bamboo in an unsustainable way leads to destruction of natural habitats. Similar to palm, large areas of land are cleared away and replanted with bamboo to meet demand. Existing wildlife is either destroyed or left homeless.
  • Planting as a monoculture results in loss of biodiversity, which impacts the wider environment.
  • As a raw material, it is mostly grown in China, along with some parts of North and South America, and Africa. The location of bamboo groves will mean long distances are travelled to factories (depending on where the product is made). Shipping bamboo from China to local warehouses releases greenhouse gases from transport.
  • Organic recycling of bamboo requires composting facilities, which are not available to all households. When organic materials are sent to landfill, they contribute to the production of landfill gas (including methane and carbon dioxide).
  • For bamboo products made in China, some manufacturers have reported:
    • Communication with overseas bamboo suppliers can be a challenge for english speaking manufacturers.
  • It is difficult to have transparency into the harvest and production of the bamboo used.

Bamboo electric toothbrushes only solve one problem

In all cases of brushes I found, only the replaceable heads are made from bamboo. 

The handle is still made from plastic. And this is something we really want to make clear.

It is misleading as many companies design the handle to look like it is made from bamboo or similar, just to improve the appearance. Unless you read the small print, you might well be expecting a bamboo toothbrush handle.

Bamboo electric toothbrushes are still mostly plastic (and use the other materials that make up a ‘regular’ electric toothbrush).

Using bamboo for the head does reduce the amount of plastic thrown away, as the heads need replacing every 3 months. 

Some companies use traditional nylon bristles for their brush heads, whilst others use bio-based plastic bristles. Ultimately a proportion is still plastic.

Not making this clear is greenwashing and can mislead customers into thinking that the brush is better than it is.

Bamboo electric toothbrushes will still contribute a negative effect compared to manual toothbrushes as they will still require the electric components, and will still be heavy to ship.

Given that transport and manufacturing are the biggest negative impacts of electric toothbrushes, changing the material the brush head is made from only solves ones problem.

The handle will still need to be disposed of in specialist e-waste facilities (find out more about proper disposal here).

There is a lack of evidence for bamboo electric toothbrushes being the best option

Don’t simply assume bamboo electric toothbrushes are a more eco-friendly option than plastic ones.

At the moment there is no research to give us exact numbers. 

The only way to be able to compare the carbon footprint of different products is to do a life-cycle analysis. These are lacking for dental products. 

The only available  toothbrush specific LCA  study assessed the impact of different options, and found manual toothbrushes are more eco-friendly than electric toothbrushes in terms when you assess their impact from manufacturing to disposal). They also found that bamboo manual toothbrushes have a lower impact than electric toothbrushes and plastic manual toothbrushes, and that bamboo had the lowest carbon emissions.

In other industries, Industrial bamboo products have a net negative carbon footprint for products made in Western Europe, despite production and transport emissions.

The claim that a bamboo electric toothbrush is more eco-friendly than conventional plastic is based on the assumption that bamboo is always more sustainable than plastic. 

The Duane et al research into toothbrushes, mentioned above, assessed another value, DALYs. Bamboo actually performed worse than plastic (because carbon emissions are only one part of the sustainability picture).

My point here is that unless you see some specific numbers, be cautious about wild claims. There are examples of LCAs  into other products have had some surprising results:

  • One study looked at milk containers, and found plastic (recycled PET) bottles to have a less negative effect on the environment than glass. 
  • An LCA of different drinking straws found disposable plastic options to have a better environmental performance compared to reusable options.
  • Single use plastic cutlery resulted in fewer emissions than bamboo single use and metal reusable cutlery when flying.

I am not saying that bamboo isn’t a better option, just that actual evidence is lacking for these specific products.

Should you buy a bamboo electric toothbrush?

A bamboo electric toothbrush is still going to have a negative environmental effect. But I would recommend doing your research and considering a bamboo electric toothbrush.

Supporting a smaller brand that is trying to change the industry might be the way you choose to spend your money. This is called ethical consumerism. By voting with your wallet and moving to these smaller brands it will drive changes in the larger companies.

Here’s a quick look at how a bamboo electric toothbrush compares to other types of toothbrush.

Bamboo electric toothbrush vs manual toothbrushes

All electric toothbrushes cause more harm to the environment than manual toothbrushes.

If your aim is to have the most environmentally friendly brush, opt for a manual toothbrush (see our guide to eco-friendly toothbrushes).

Bamboo electric toothbrush vs regular electric toothbrush and bamboo replacement heads

If you already have an electric toothbrush, the most environmentally friendly thing to do is to keep using it until it no longer works.

You can switch the types of head you buy to a more eco-friendly alternative, such as bamboo replacement heads (see below).

Bamboo electric toothbrush vs new regular electric toothbrush

All electric toothbrushes contribute a negative effect compared to manual toothbrushes as they will still require the electric components, and will still be heavier to ship.

Given that transport and manufacturing are the biggest negative impacts of electric toothbrushes, we aren’t solving that problem by simply switching the material of the handle.

The handle will still need to be disposed of in specialist e-waste facilities (find out more about proper disposal here).

If you are at higher risk of gum disease and tooth decay, an electric toothbrush is still recommended as it will help prevent treatment being needed.

Are so-called bamboo electric toothbrush handles made from plastic any better than the mainstream options? Are these a more environmentally friendly option than well-known oral care brands?

Bamboo electric toothbrushes, at the time of writing, are being produced by smaller companies.

Often, these smaller brands are developing products with sustainability in mind. The brush itself may only have marginal reductions in carbon footprint. But sustainability is about more than this.

These companies will strive to use ethical factories, and have a better working environment for employees. They often contribute positively by supporting environmental and oral care causes and charities (for example, donating part of their profits or donating toothbrushes). They are trying to do better.

How electric toothbrushes impact the environment

As mentioned in my article Is There Such A Thing As An Eco-Friendly Electric Toothbrush, the reasons why electric toothbrushes are not eco-friendly include:

  • The number of unique parts required, and the materials used.
    • Steel
    • Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries
    • Copper wiring
    • Plastics for casing
  • The power and water required to produce a more complex toothbrush.
  • The additional materials needed to package an electric toothbrush and its components.
    • This often includes difficult to recycle plastics such as polystyrene protective packaging and thin plastic bags.
  • Additional energy requirements for transporting a heavier product. 
  • Additional energy requirements at home for charging the brush.
  • The need for specific waste electrical recycling. 

As you can see from the list above, focusing solely on the material the brush is made from doesn’t paint the whole picture.

It is important that we strive for more sustainable products, but claims need to be backed up by evidence and studies.

A look at the brands that are selling bamboo electric toothbrushes and heads

There are now several brands that are selling bamboo toothbrushes.

We have not yet completed any hands-on testing for these products, but I have commented on the marketing claims below based on the research I have done.

Do be aware that some of these only come with a 1 year warranty, whereas brushes from other manufacturers are available with a 2 year warranty.

The number of products is increasing all the time, the ones currently available include:

Do not be fooled into thinking these products are more sustainable than other electric toothbrushes simply because they’re made of bamboo.

Organically Epic

Organically Epic have produced this “Electric Bamboo Toothbrush”. This is one of a number of bamboo options available from them.

However bamboo is only a small portion of the brush! They state (in the smaller print) that the handle is actually made of plastic made to look like bamboo. They explain their reasons for this — safety and durability. They say “ Bamboo absorbs water so as well as being a fire risk with electronics inside, when we tried to make the entire brush out of bamboo it was super noisy and also was prone to mould.”

This fits in with what I suspected the problems would be using bamboo for an electric toothbrush. It is great that they have considered long term wear, but I do find the description and name of the product to be very misleading.

Only the toothbrush heads are made from bamboo. Although this is technically compostable, it will require you to dismantle the brush head to remove the bristles and any other components. Their claim of recyclable bristles is also optimistic, given that they only way to recycle them is via specialist toothbrush recycling schemes.

I like that the company itself uses FSC certified bamboo, but I think improvements could be made on the bristles which are conventional nylon with charcoal (the charcoal does not improve stain removal — see my article on recycling toothbrush bristles for more information). They have some information on the website, but don’t provide the evidence to support their claims (for example when discussing charcoal bristles removing staining). 

Etee

Canadian company Etee make bamboo manual toothbrushes and have also introduced this “Electric Bamboo Toothbrush”.

The advertise the toothbrush heads as “compostable” however when you look at their FAQ, it isn’t simply a case of chucking it on a home compost pile. A bit of effort is needed to dismantle the toothbrush head, and bristles are thrown into non-recycling waste. This is deceiving, which is one of the biggest problems I have with producers of toothbrushes like this!

Similar to other bamboo electric toothbrushes, the handle isn’t bamboo at all — it is made from PC plastic. Again, claims are made about it being 100% recyclable, but these are not fully supported or explained.

Fayet

Fayet Bamboo Electric Toothbrush is another option where the handle itself is plastic, but made to look like bamboo. The replaceable toothbrush heads are made from bamboo. The website itself is midleading, quoting plastics as biodegradable and “environmentally safe” with no explanation about what this means.

Bamboo electric toothbrush heads are also lacking evidence when it comes to sustainability

Humble Co bamboo electric toothbrush heads
Photo from The Humble Co website

Bamboo electric toothbrush heads are new to the market. There are not many options available, and we have yet to do any hands on testing.

Examples of bamboo electric toothbrush heads include:

I haven’t come across any bamboo electric toothbrush heads for Oral-B/Braun. 

Toothbrush manufacturer Bamboo Buddy explains “by weight/volume you reduce plastic by 90%” by replacing the plastic part with bamboo, although bristles are still made from plastic. Humble Co gives a similar figure of 88%.

Replacing the plastic with bamboo does not automatically make these replacement heads better for the environment.

There is an assumption that replacing oil-based plastic components with bamboo will have less of an effect on the environment overall. This may be true, but there is no evidence to support this.

Recycling these brush heads will still be difficult because of the multiple parts and the nylon bristles. 

To learn more about this, see my article Can You Recycle Electric Toothbrush Heads?

What is the most eco-friendly toothbrush?

When it comes to toothbrushes that don’t have an impact on the environment, electric toothbrushes are the worst option.

When compared to manual toothbrushes, electric toothbrushes require more carbon to produce and ship, and they contain electrical components which can contribute to e-waste.

Therefore, if you are trying to minimise your impact on the environment, opt for a manual toothbrush.

With the evidence we have available, it seems that the most eco-friendly toothbrushes are those which have a reusable handle and changeable heads.

For more information, see our guide on the most-eco friendly toothbrush options.

We also have a guide on how to make your dental health more eco-friendly.

About Dr. Gemma Wheeler, BDS (Hons)

Gemma qualified from Cardiff University School of Dentistry in 2015. She went on to complete her Foundation Training and a further two years in the Armed Forces, primarily based around Wiltshire. She now works in a private practice in Plymouth.

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