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11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products

Selection of eco-friendly interdental cleaning products

The team at Electric Teeth have a particular interest in the environment. We aren’t recycling experts, or sustainability experts. But during the research phase creating our content about environmentally friendly dental care, I did come across some surprising facts.

Several of these are attempts by companies that are greenwashing. They are making their products sound better than they are to encourage you to buy them.

I have also listed some innovative products and interesting environmentally friendly statistics.

1. Reducing water usage is an easy way to protect the environment

👉 Turning off the tap when brushing is a free and simple way to reduce your impact

11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products 1

A simple step you can do to lessen your impact on the environment is to reduce the amount of water you use.

Leaving the tap running whilst brushing your teeth wastes a lot of water. 

The specific number obviously varies depending on how long you brush for, the flow rate of your tap, and whether hot or cold water is used.

A 2019 study of Environmental Impacts Of Healthcare And Pharmaceutical Products found that the biggest environmental impacts from toothpaste comes from having the tap running whilst brushing your teeth. 

On average, a tap runs about 6 litres per minute. That means 24 litres of water per person per day are flowing if you leave the tap on whilst brushing your teeth for two minutes at a time.

This water requires lots of energy to make it safe for you to drink, energy to pump it to your home, and energy to decontaminate it when it goes down the plug hole.

In the UK (there haven’t been separate studies yet) running the warm water tap results in an energy consumption of 3.65 kg CO2. Cut this right back to minimal room temperature water and energy requirement is just 0.09 kg CO2

You will save money on water bills too!

⚠️ Turn the tap off when brushing your teeth.

2. There is a lot of confusion around bioplastic and what it means

👉 Bio-based plastic DOES NOT equal biodegradable

Bioplastic is not a protected term and can mean many things. Advertisers use it to make something sound like it is more environmentally friendly, without actually explaining what it means.

I spent many hours researching newer materials and managed to break it down into:

  • Bio-based plastics – these are made from biological material instead of fossil fuels.
  • Biodegradable plastics – these can theoretically break down into water, carbon dioxide and biomass in the right environmental conditions.

Bio-based plastics use plants to make the material. One such example is nylon made from castor oil. They have a small carbon footprint.

Biodegradable plastics, such as Polylactic acid (PLA) have been researched to prove they break down in certain conditions. In theory they can be composted to leave no waste being sent to landfill.

The overlap between bio-based and bio-degradable plastics
This image from Green Dot Bioplastics shows the overlap between bio-based and biodegradable plastics.

It is possible to have a bio-based biodegradable plastic. It is also possible to have a bio-based plastic which is not biodegradable at all. Finally, it’s also possible to have biodegradable plastic made from fossil fuels.

⚠️ Just because something has the prefix “bio” it isn’t guaranteed to be fossil fuel free or compostable.

3. Biodegradable plastics and oxo-degradable additives are a big problem

👉 Some companies are even lobbying to ban them.

Plastics do not normally break down over a lifetime, it takes hundreds, if not thousands of years,. Two options to get around this are “biodegradable plastics” or adding chemicals to plastic to make them break down.

Biodegradable plastics can be a problem if they aren’t sent to industrial composting facilities. For example, if they end up in an oxygen deprived (anaerobic) landfill, or cold water, they will not break down. 

At the moment, there is a lack of the needed industrial composting facilities world wide. Some food and garden waste goes to industrial composting facilities, but this varies depending on your waste collector.

So whilst all these companies are making “biodegradable” plastics, we just don’t have the facilities to get rid of them yet. These plastics damage regular recycling facilities, so the only place they can go is to landfill.

It’s a bit of a farce how companies are making biodegradable products yet we don’t have the facilities to get rid of them yet!

To help reduce the problem of plastic not breaking down, some conventional plastics can have chemicals added to them to speed up how fast they break down. These additives create an oxo-degradable plastic. 

These oxo-degradable plastics are not bio-based plastics, and are not biodegradable plastics. They are their own category.

They were originally designed as a short term solution to littering, but research now shows just how damaging they are.

Oxo-degradable additives result in the material breaking into smaller pieces and microplastics being released. They don’t break down the actual plastic in the same way as composting (i.e. leaving behind just water, carbons dioxide and biomass/compost).

The microplastics harm the environment.

Few groups with environmental and plastics expertise support using additives to create oxo-degradable plastics. This statement released by The New Plastics Economy explains why some groups do not support these materials, and was endorsed by many charities, businesses, and professional groups, including The Association of Plastics Recyclers, Greenpeace & WWF.

⚠️ I recommend avoiding plastic products that advertise having additives to speed up break down. 

4. You can now get toothpaste refills

👉 Innovative companies are trying to break the mould

boca toothpaste

Some companies are embracing the circular economy. They are reducing their plastic waste and providing refill options.

One such example is Boca toothpaste.

You keep the main tube when you finish your toothpaste, and clean it in a dishwasher. They provide you with refills in compostable packaging, ensuring no waste goes to landfill.

Other toothpaste refill options have been available for a while. So far these have only been  available for toothpaste tablets. These are also a good option, but not everybody likes the texture of these, preferring a traditional paste.

Not only is the texture familiar, there are fluoride containing options too.

Whilst this is only a trial in the UK, it is great to see the technology being developed. Other companies working on similar products include Archie (in Australia) and Happier (not yet for sale).

⚠️ Look out for and support smaller companies developing new products — the market is ever changing.

5. Nylon 4 toothbrush bristles get advertised, but don’t seem to exist

👉 I don’t think Nylon 4 bristles actually exist

A number of companies made references to nylon-4 toothbrush bristles as magical degradable bristles. Some toothbrushes even claim to have them. This is just one of several toothbrush bristle alternatives to traditional nylon.

But I haven’t found a producer of nylon 4 toothbrush bristles. There are producers of nylon 4 (PA 4) in other forms, such as footwear or engine covers, but no toothbrush bristles. I don’t think they actually exist, yet.

I also can’t find a single toothbrush that can back up claims that they have nylon 4 bristles.

I’m not the only one questioning this, bloggers such as Charlotte Witts  and  My Plastic Free Life have discovered this too. 

⚠️ Be sure to question any manufacturers saying they are using the mysterious nylon 4 toothbrush bristles.

6. So-called ‘bamboo dental floss’ is still made from plastic.

“Bamboo” floss is often touted as an environmentally friendly floss. Its name would make you think that the entire thing is made from bamboo. But that isn’t the case. 

In a textbook example of greenwashing, these companies are using advertising to make you believe this version of floss is more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

In all the examples of bamboo floss that I researched, the bamboo is actually about the charcoal that is embedded into the floss. The floss itself can be made of anything from regular nylon, polyester, or bio-based plastic.

⚠️ Do not be tricked into believing your “bamboo floss” is automatically biodegradable or compostable.

7. The way companies advertise “Plastic Free” plastics is misleading

👉 Bio-based plastic and bio-degradable plastics are still plastic

Personally, I am concerned by the number of companies who are misleading customers about their toothbrush bristles. 

A common marketing claim from many toothbrush makers is that their toothbrush is now “plastic free”. Such toothbrushes will have a bamboo (or other wooden) handle. I’ve also seen examples of brushes being sold as:

  • 100% plant based
  • 100% biobased
  • Plastic free
  • Biobased instead of plastic based

This sounds great, and people want to buy such products to reduce their impact on the environment.

But they are forgetting their bristles! The only bristles which can effectively clean the teeth over 2-3 months are made from plastic. 

There are some alternatives to traditional nylon plastic bristles. Plants can be used as the basis to make the plastic rather than fossil fuels, to create a bio-based nylon. There are also “bio-degradable plastics” such as PLA. The final product is still plastic though, regardless of the source of the basic ingredients (oil or plant).

Some companies are honest, saying that there just simply isn’t a good alternative yet. And they are right.

But some companies drop the word plastic in an attempt to appear to be more environmentally friendly.  This is classic greenwashing.

Avoid being misled by getting a name for the material of your toothbrush bristles.

*There is the exception of some brushes using natural fibres such as boar hair for bristles.

8. Bamboo electric toothbrushes are still mostly plastic

👉 At the moment there is a lack of evidence to compare them to regular electric toothbrushes

11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products 2
Photo from Organically Epic website

Bamboo electric toothbrushes have plastic handles with bamboo heads. The main body of the brush is normally made to look like wood for consistency with the head, but it is still plastic.

The fact that the heads are made from bamboo may make them more eco-friendly, but depends on your waste disposal options. Using bamboo heads on a regular plastic electric toothbrush would achieve the same.

At the time of writing, we found that bamboo electric toothbrushes are mostly made by small independent companies — we list some examples in our article on bamboo electric toothbrushes.

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

⚠️ Regardless of material, an electric toothbrush still has a much greater impact than a manual toothbrush.

9. The Green Dot and Mobius Loop are effectively meaningless

👉 These logos have no relation to how eco friendly the product is

You will be familiar with The Green Dot 11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products 3 and The Mobius Loop 11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products 4 Packaging, and products themselves, often have one of these logos stamped on them. 

But did you know that neither of these are a guarantee that the material is recycled or recyclable? 

PRO Europe explains: “The Green Dot is the financing symbol for the organisation of recovery, sorting and recycling of sales packaging. When you see the Green Dot on packaging it means that for such packaging, a financial contribution has been paid to a qualified national packaging recovery organisation.”

In other words, The Green Dot11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products 5 is a trademarked symbol companies pay to use to show they have paid some money towards recycling packaging in general.

The Mobius Loop isn’t trademarked and comes in many different forms and colours. It generally means something is recyclable in theory. It doesn’t guarantee that the material can be recycled by the facilities local to you. And it does not mean that there is recycled content in the product.

⚠️ There are specific certified recyclable symbols which are local to where you are, which will tell you how to recycle a product.

10. Microbeads are banned from cosmetics in most countries (but not Australia)

Microplastics pose a large environmental problem. One source of this is polyethylene in the form of plastic microbeads. These are added to cosmetics from face washes to toothpastes.  

Plastic microbeads in toothpastes can be detrimental to gum health, as well as proving harmful for the environment.

19 countries have now agreed to ban plastic microbeads, including the US, the UK and Canada.

One country that hasn’t yet signed up is Australia. In 2015 Environment Ministers requested a voluntary agreement to phase out microbeads in personal care, cosmetic and cleaning products by no later than 1 July 2018. At present there is no legal obligation to eliminate microplastics from cosmetic products, so it is possible that they may be present in your toothpaste.

⚠️ You can search to see if the product you are using contains microplastics using the beat the microbead webpage.

11 Interesting Things I Found Out Whilst Researching Eco-Friendly Dental Products 6
A sample of toothpaste with microbeads in it

11. There is a real lack of sustainability evidence in dental products

It is important to note that the only way you can really decide whether something has a lower impact on the environment is by doing a life cycle assessment (also called a life cycle analysis).

These LCAs follow strict international criteria (ISO 14040/44) so can be directly compared.

This guide explains that LCAs measure the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its life cycle, from the resources used to create the product or service, across its use by the user, to its final end of life destination. 

Sadly these are not widely available for most dental products I have looked into.

Don’t believe numbers that seem too good to be true, unless an LCA has been completed.

Companies and businesses use numbers and keywords to make the general public believe their products are beneficial in some way. They use words like “eco-friendly” without specific details. 

They want to boost their sales and public image. Many companies don’t actually make significant changes to their practices and policies.

This greenwashing is trying to get consumers to spend money on their products whilst still not changing their impact on the environment.

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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