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How To Recycle A Manual Toothbrush & Other Dental Products

Old toothbrushes with frayed bristles

Key Takeaways

Even when choosing the most environmentally friendly dental products, there will come a stage when you are finished with it. 

You are then left wondering what to do with the waste.

Manual toothbrushes are difficult to recycle.

At present, there isn’t such a thing as a 100% natural or plastic free toothbrush that has no impact on the planet. 

So you will need to recycle the toothbrush correctly to ensure minimal impact on the environment.

For a small number of toothbrushes, they may be recyclable at home once bristles have been removed. The most important thing is to carefully look at the material of the handle.

The toothbrush head with bristles need to be recycled in specialist schemes, whether that is through TerraCycle or manufacturer return schemes.

The same goes for other dental products such as toothpaste packaging and flossing tools.

Read on to find out what to do with them when they can no longer be used for oral healthcare.

Toothbrushes as they are can’t go in your normal recycling

Toothbrushes as they are cannot go in with normal household plastic recycling.

One problem is the nylon bristles, which are not recycled by local facilities.

Nylon in toothbrush bristles needs to be sent to specialist recovery programmes. My article on recycling toothbrush bristles goes into more detail.

Take the bristles off the brush, and you are just left with the handle to recycle.

Traditional handles often have more than one material which cannot be separated at normal recycling facilities. This makes those sorts of handles non recyclable.

However, it is possible that some handles with the bristles removed could be added to household recycling.

For example, TePe states that its Polypropylene and Polyethylene handles can be recycled with household recycling (after the bristles are removed).

The biggest difficulty is getting a firm answer from a toothbrush manufacturer about what material the handle actually is.

Use these guidelines to determine if your brush handle can go in the recycling

The following guidelines should be checked with your local recycling provider as rules do vary from one place to the next.

These are recommendations for handles where the bristles have been removed.

  • Bamboo handles: can go in with garden waste, on a home composting pile, or with industrial composting.
  • Single plastic handles: can go in with plastic recycling (if accepted by local systems).
  • Bio-based plastic handles: can go in plastic recycling or industrial composting, depending on the material.

There is no dentistry specific guidance as yet.  

I have looked to the United States Environmental Protection Agency but you do need to check your own local recycling information for advice on exactly which type of plastics are accepted. 

This Which article explains which types of plastics are normally accepted by recycling facilities (the article is UK based but gives good examples of different types of plastics). 

The Less Waste website also explains the different recycling options for plastics well.

Wherever possible, when reviewing toothbrushes for our eco-friendly toothbrush roundup, I have put information about the type of plastic it is.

The table below lists the recycling options that are available for different handle types.

Handle MaterialRecycling Options
Bamboo handlesHome composting
Industrial composting
Garden waste recycling
Specialist toothbrush recycling
Bio-based plastic handlesPlastic recycling collections (sometimes)
Specialist toothbrush recycling (sometimes)
“Compostable” or “biodegradable” plastic handlesHome composting (sometimes)
Industrial composting (sometimes)
Do not place with plastic recycling
Recycled plastic handles number 5 (PP)Normally can go with plastic recycling
Specialist toothbrush recycling
Recycled plastic handles number 7 (other)Rarely can go with plastic recycling, goes with household waste
Specialist toothbrush recycling
Handles with more than one materialHousehold waste (not recyclable)
Specialist toothbrush recycling

Don’t assume bioplastic products can go in the recycling

The development of newer types of plastics, sometimes called bioplastic, is an area of confusion. 

Factories where recycling occurs need to make sure the end product isn’t contaminated. Adding some types of bioplastic to regular plastic recycling can create problems.

Bioplastics is a word used to describe many different things. It is an overarching term that can include:

  • bio-based plastics: plastics which are derived from natural/plant-based resources instead of fossil fuels. The end structure is the same, it is just a different starting block.
  • biodegradable plastics : either fossil fuel derived plastics or bio-based plastics, but which biodegrade. This means they break down with the aid of microorganisms. 
  • compostable plastics : either fossil fuel derived plastics or bio-based plastics, but which are compostable. This means they break down, under specific conditions, into biomass, carbon dioxide and water. 

Bio-based plastics have pretty much the same structure as conventional plastic. They are not automatically biodegradable or compostable, no matter what manufacturers tell you! These could go with your plastic recycling collections, once the bristles have been removed.

Obviously, not all plastics are accepted at all recycling collections.

Biodegradable and compostable plastics have a different structure and are not recyclable. 

When it comes to end of life options, biodegradable plastics such as PLA cannot currently be recycled with other plastics (for example milk bottles, which are collected as part of your household collection). It can damage the recycling equipment if included incorrectly.

Don’t take a manufacturers’ word that something can be home composted

Those that have had independent testing could be added to the appropriate home or industrial composting piles. Do not just take a manufacturers’ word that something can be composted at home. Ask for evidence and testing certificates.

Yes, there is evidence to show that PLA is biodegradable, however the conditions needed means it needs industrial composting. You can’t just throw it on your home compost pile, as it will take years as a lump in the shape of a toothbrush head. 

At the moment, there is a lack of these industrial composting facilities world wide. 

So whilst all these companies are making “biodegradable” plastics, we just don’t have the facilities to get rid of them yet. Some food and garden waste goes to industrial composting facilities, but this varies from council to council. If you know your waste goes to such a facility, biodegradable plastics could in theory be thrown in with this waste. However at the sorting plant, it may be confused for conventional plastic and be removed anyway. 

Ironically, without proper recycling facilities, these plastics may well end up with general waste. If this waste goes to landfill, the biodegradable plastics break down and release methane, a gas with a greater impact than carbon dioxide. In some respects this is worse than conventional plastics going to landfill!

The take home message is that bio-based plastics have a smaller carbon footprint. Biodegradable plastics at present pose a challenge for recycling, and their environmental impact could be even less if waste streams were changed to recycle the materials properly.

End-of-life-options for bioplastics

As mentioned above, ‘bioplastic’ is a term to describe many different things.

The diagram below shows the difference between how bio-based & durable bioplastics are dealt with at the end of their life (on the left), compared to how biodegradable & compostable bioplastics are dealt with.

End of life options for bioplastics

How To Remove Toothbrush Bristles

There is the chance that your toothbrush handle is recyclable at home, as long as the bristles are removed.

So how do you remove toothbrush bristles?

First option is to try pulling them out with pliers, as demonstrated here.

Freezing the brush beforehand can make this easier to do.

Another option is to remove the head section of the toothbrush. If you are safely able to do so, use a small saw to cut off the head part of the toothbrush.

TerraCycle is another options for hard-to-recycle waste

TerraCycle Logo

TerraCycle is an innovative recycling company. It has become a global leader in managing hard-to-recycle waste.

It aims to prevent waste going to landfill by recycling it instead.

TerraCycle works with well known brands to provide free recycling programmes for oral care products and packaging.

Rather than throwing away your toothbrush and empty tube of toothpaste, you can recycle it via Terracycle.

TerraCycle rewards collectors with donations to schools, charities and non profit organisations.

By partaking in the scheme, not only does the environment win, but local communities benefit too.

TerraCycle systems in the USA

There are five TerraCycle schemes you can use in the US  to recycle your toothbrush and other dental care products.

Four of these are free to use (Colgate, Tom’s of Maine and Spotlight), and one involves paying for your own box.

Four of the schemes focus on oral health products, although each scheme accepts different items.

One of the schemes accepts only dental retainers. 

Colgate Oral Care Recycling Program. This scheme, sponsored by Colgate, is free to use. You simply drop off your items at the relevant public drop-off location (find a map of them here). Only some products are accepted, but they can be from any brand. The person hosting the box collects points for products sent in to TerraCycle, and then uses these points to donate money to their chosen cause.

Colgate® Wisp® Recycling Program is a free to use scheme that works in the same way as the main Colgate Program. However it only accepts Colgate Wisp brushes.

Tom’s of Maine & Hello Natural Care Recycling Program. Tom’s of Maine & Hello sponsor this scheme. It provides free public drop-off locations (find a map of them here). The scheme accepts products from any brand. The person hosting the box collects points for products sent in to TerraCycle, and then uses these points to donate money to their chosen cause.

Spotlight Oral Care Aligners Recycling Program For Aligners. Spotlight is a smaller toothbrush brand,  which has spotted the problem with waste from dental aligners (such as those from Invisalign treatment). They have sponsored boxes which are given to dental practices. It is free to drop off the clear retainers and their packaging, which are then recycled through TerraCycle. They do not accept other oral health care products.

Oral Care Waste and Packaging – Zero Waste Box™. This box is not free. It is one that you would need to pay for (prices start at $42.00). It does accept a wide variety of dental care products. You order and pay for the box, which is then returned to TerraCycle when full. There is also the opportunity to order an industrial sized pallet bag. TerraCycle recycles the contents. You do not earn points for these boxes. Accepted dental products could also be added to the All-In-One – Zero Waste Box™ (from $199.00, but accepts a wider range of products).

How TerraCycle works

You take your used manual toothbrush and other dental products to the recycling point. 

That location has joined the TerraCycle scheme. They collect from multiple people. They box it all up and label it.

The collected items are then sent to a TerraCycle sorting facility in the country where the waste was collected. 

How TerraCycle works

Once at the TerraCycle facility, they collect, weigh, and check the shipment for contamination.

TerraCycle explains their processes on its website. 

The materials are sent to appropriate factories and used to produce useful recycled materials.

Firstly, the recyclable products are separated depending on the material. 

Paper and cardboard fibres are hydropulped to separate out coatings (like wax and plastics) and then recycled into new paper products. They are composted if recycling is not possible. 

Plastics will be recycled into plastic polymers. 

The materials are then shredded, washed.

The plastics are melted into hard plastic pellets.

From there, companies can buy the plastic pellets. These plastic pellets can be used to make new recycled products such as benches.

TerraCycle does not pay the collectors for the boxes of oral care products that it collects.

But it does offer a rewards programme.

TerraCycle rewards shipments based on their weight. The rewards are called TerraCycle Points.

For shipments in the Colgate® Oral Care Recycling Program, packages must be at least 5 pounds to earn TerraCycle points. For all qualifying shipments, each used or empty oral care item sent in will earn approximately 2 TerraCycle points. It works out about 100 points per pound will be awarded. 

For Tom’s Of Maine collections Shipments in this program must be at least 4 pounds to earn points. Each empty package, container, or item will be awarded 2 points.

TerraCycle points can be redeemed for a variety of charitable gifts or a payment of $0.01 per point to the non-profit organization or school of your choice.

To redeem the points as financial donations, a minimum of 2,500 points or $25 is required.

The Colgate Wisp programme doesn’t earn any rewards. There is also no mention of rewards for the Spotlight aligners collection.

Anyone can sign up to the Colgate and Tom’s of Maine programmes as a private collector or a public location which will be visible on the relevant TerraCycle map. 

The Spotlight programme is only available to dentists, and does not mention any rewards.

What is and isn’t accepted by each programme

The exact products accepted will depend on the specific box. See the table below for a full guide to what is and isn’t collected in the different TerraCycle boxes.

In order to recycle the products properly, TerraCycle asks that you remove all the excess product (i.e. leftover toothpaste).

You do not necessarily have to rinse the product. But if you do choose to rinse it, it must be completely dry before placing it in the recycling bin.

What Is AcceptedWhat Is Not Accepted
Colgate Oral Care Recycling All brands of: toothpaste tubes and caps, Toothbrushes, toothpaste cartons, toothbrush outer packaging, floss containersElectric toothbrushes, Battery toothbrushes (or their parts)
Colgate® Wisp® Recycling Program Colgate® Wisp® mini-brushes and Colgate® Wisp® mini-brush packagingEverything else
Tom’s Of Maine & hello Natural Care RecyclingMouthwash bottles and caps, Toothbrushes, Deodorant containers and caps, Soap packaging, Floss containers, Toothpaste tubes and capsBattery operated toothbrushes, Electric toothbrush handles, Dental floss, Batteries
Spotlight Oral Care RecyclingAll dental aligners and packagingAnything else
Oral Care Waste and Packaging – Zero Waste Box™Toothpaste tubes and caps, Toothbrushes, toothbrush and toothpaste tube outer packaging, floss containers.Battery operated toothbrushes, Electric toothbrush handles, Dental floss, Batteries

Criticism of TerraCycle

TerraCycle billboard

TerraCycle may seem like the perfect solution for your dental waste. But I think there are some things to consider when using the schemes.

Dental care is a plastic intensive industry. For some items, yes, single use plastic is unavoidable.

But there are many areas where improvements could be made to make more environmentally friendly products. 

It reduces pressure on manufacturers

Using TerraCycle could be seen as a buy out and stops pressure on manufacturers to actually change their products.

There are some types of material that TerraCycle does not accept. It does not accept bamboo and bio-based plastics, for example.

The problem is that these are seen as environmentally friendly alternative materials. The problem is, they are only a better alternative if they can be disposed of properly when you are no longer using them.

TerraCycle doesn’t accept them, and neither do most kerbside collections. With manufacturers moving towards bio-based plastic alternatives to traditional plastic, this leaves few options for recycling when finished with the product. 

It reduces personal incentive to change

Another downside of using recycling through TerraCycle is that it provides less incentive to swap to options which have less of an impact on the environment.

This applies on an individual level — why choose the more expensive compostable option when you can have the disposable plastic option which is recycled by TerraCycle?!

This perceived guilt free option doesn’t push individuals towards ethical consumerism (making spending choices on more ethical products).

Without drive from individuals, we are also not pushing the big companies into developing new technologies.

It reduces incentive for companies to change their products and packaging

Large companies that sponsor TerraCycle boxes get a tick in the box for environmentalism, but in some cases they aren’t actually doing anything to change the systems they have produced.

There is no incentive for these companies to change packaging to be easy to recycle if TerraCycle will accept their current products.

These large companies are getting lots of publicity as being more environmentally friendly when they are doing very little to change their impact on the environment. This is classic greenwashing.

That said, at least large companies throwing cash at the problem does provide free recycling. The boxes are otherwise really quite expensive to buy personally, much outside of the price range for an average family. 

Some regard this system as greenwashing

TerraCycle is a profitable company. We live in a capitalist society. Some people make calls that the company is greenwashing and that they are “fake environmentalists” because of this.

Personally I think there is a balance to be had between making a profit and making something affordable for the general public.

TerraCycle is a good option for when there truly is no other alternative for recycling (e.g. items that aren’t accepted kerbside). And for items where there is currently no other less impactful material (toothbrush bristles, for which there is currently no plastic free option).

Other toothbrush recycling schemes and take back systems

In some instances, toothbrush bristles or heads can be removed and the handle recycled at home. Alternatively, the toothbrush can be recycled with Terracycle.

But are there any other options for recycling your manual toothbrush?

There are also several companies which offer take back systems. They accept returns of their own products, but not brushes which are bought elsewhere.

You post the items back to the company you ordered from, and they arrange for recycling. 

This simplifies the recycling process for you, as the company has done the legwork and knows where to send your brush. It also makes the process more convenient because you just send the toothbrush back in a pre-paid envelope.

These are sometimes advertised as “closed loop” systems. So long as all of the materials put into the system are usable at the end, this is true. But it is difficult to hold the companies to account as they send the brushes elsewhere for processing.

The companies offering the take back systems rarely give evidence to support these claims and so they should be taken with a pinch of salt. Some of the companies simply pass your items on to TerraCycle, but charge you for postage so you are losing money — do beware of that.

In the US, companies offering take back systems for products bought from them include:

Via Loop for products purchased with them

Oral-B and Crest: “Recycle on Us”

The Oral-B and Crest Recycling Program, is a recycling initiative from the leading oral care brand.

Instead of sending your products into TerraCycle, you post it into Oral-B/Crest. To get your shipping label head to https://recycling.oralb.com/.

The scheme accepts the vast majority of consumables associated with oral care at home.  You can return:

  • Manual toothbrushes
  • Electric toothbrush heads
  • Toothpaste tubes and caps
  • Mouthwash bottles and containers
  • Floss containers
  • String floss
  • Floss picks

It does not matter what brand the products are, they will all be accepted. However, they do not accept: 

  • Electric toothbrush handles (with or without the battery)
  • Battery powered toothbrush handles (with or without the battery)

An electric toothbrush can only be recycled when dropped off in person at a participating dental office recycling centre.

Things to note:

  • You can send as much or as little as you like into the recycling program.
    • To maximize efficiency and get the most out of it, try and collect as much as possible before shipping it to the processing facility.
  • There is no cost to you for sending these items back.  
  • Upon completing the online form at https://recycling.oralb.com/, a UPS shipping label will be created and they will collect it from you and send it to the recycling facility.
  • You will need to provide the box for shipping and seal this before attaching the shipping label.
  • You do not have to wash all the items prior to sending.
    • Ensure that tubes of toothpaste and mouthwash bottles are as empty as possible.  
    • Make sure items are dry. (UPS will not be able to collect damp or wet packages.)

Upcycling projects are a good way to re-use products

When it comes to minimising your effect on the environments, think about the three Rs:

  • Reduce
  • Reuse 
  • Recycle

Even though you shouldn’t be using your toothbrush to brush your teeth after about 3 months, your toothbrush still has plenty of life in it.

From cleaning difficult to reach places, to painting, to craft projects, your toothbrush can be used for plenty of other things before you recycle it.

Eco Green Love has lots of helpful hints and tips for how to upcycle your toothbrush.

How to recycle other dental products

Here, the focus has been on how to recycle a manual toothbrush. We also have a separate post with information on how to recycle electric toothbrush heads.

The most difficult part about recycling toothbrushes is what to do about the bristles, and we do have advice about what to do in our post about toothbrush bristles.

Other oral health products which have specific information for recycling are toothpaste tubes.

Can you make more environmentally friendly product choices?

When it comes to choosing more environmentally friendly products, there is no absolute right or wrong answer.

Neither dentistry nor sustainability is “a one recommendation fits all” topic. There are many complicating factors that make one choice the best for one person, but not for another.

The most important thing is to choose a brush with a lower impact, that you find comfortable to use, and to make sure you are using it properly

In many cases, manual toothbrushes have less impact on the environment than an electric toothbrush.

It is certainly more eco-friendly for someone at low risk of dental problems.

But if you are at high risk of gum disease or tooth decay, then effective cleaning needs to be the number one priority. Prioritising your health is more important than absolute zero waste. And this normally comes from using an electric toothbrush.

Preventing diseases so that you do not need dental treatment is the best way to reduce your impact on the environment, because dental treatments generate large amounts of waste.

We have other pages that discuss the most eco-friendly manual toothbrushes, and also have a list of the best bamboo brushes.

Be aware that whilst bamboo may seem an obvious choice, recycled plastic may actually have less of an impact, so long as it can be easily recycled. This is dependent on what recycling facilities you have available.

Thinking about what recycling options you have available to you should be a consideration when choosing what toothbrush is more environmentally friendly for you to use.

For example, bamboo is a poor choice if you don’t have the ability to compost it when you are finished.

Some plastic handles can actually go in with normal recycling, once you have removed the bristles.

Use your spending power to make better choices for the environment. This ethical consumerism will drive the market to change.

About Gemma Wheeler

GDC number: 259369. Gemma qualified from Cardiff University School of Dentistry with BDS(Hons) 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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