There is a lack of evidence to be able to say which is the most eco-friendly toothbrush. Picking a truly sustainable toothbrush is not a one-size-fits-all answer.
Companies producing “environmentally-friendly” toothbrushes can mislead you in an effort to increase sales, so some research is needed to figure out what is best for you.
The most environmentally friendly toothbrush is one that is effective at removing plaque, so that you do not need dental treatment.
It is almost impossible to avoid using plastic bristles. Instead focus on the material of the handle and how this can be recycled when you are finished with it.
Based on my research into eco-friendly dental products, I would argue that the most sustainable toothbrush would be one with a reusable handle made from recycled plastic, with replaceable heads made up of recycled plastic (number 5, which is also recyclable) with bio-based plastic bristles. But there is not much evidence to support this (or contradict it!).
In the sections below, I’ve included various options for eco-friendly toothbrushes and detailed my research on the topic.
My current recommendations
At the moment, the best option for an eco-friendly toothbrush is probably a recycled plastic handle with a replaceable head. The best example I have found, and which is widely available, is the Radius Source Toothbrush.
Bamboo toothbrushes are often a good option, but not if you cannot recycle the handle at the end.
Another alternative is an aluminium handle with recycled plastic head (if it is affordable for you).
I have included additional recommendations further down the page, grouped by the type of material the handle is made from.
Avoid biodegradable plastics which are a hazard to recycling systems.
Manual vs electric for eco-friendliness
Manual toothbrushes are more eco-friendly than electric toothbrushes when you assess their impact from manufacturing to disposal.
That is, as long as you have the right technique for cleaning. If you have higher clinical needs, using an electric toothbrush to help you avoid needing dental treatments would still be better than switching to a manual brush. This is because dental treatments have a very high impact on the environment.
For some people, manual toothbrushes don’t give a good enough clean. Prevention and self care are two of the four factors for sustainable clinical practice in dentistry, as discussed in my Dentist’s Guide to Eco-Friendly Dentistry.
Looking after your teeth and gums at home is vital if you care about the environment. See our guide on how to make your dental health more eco-friendly for more information on this.
If you do need an electric toothbrush, see our guide on eco-friendly electric toothbrushes.
There is a huge choice of manual toothbrushes — I run through the various options below and give advice on how to assess them.
What recent studies say about the most eco-friendly type of toothbrush
There is not a simple answer here, but our advice below is guided by the studies that are available.
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. These are usually done by the companies that make the product, following strict international criteria (ISO 14040/44).
At the time of writing, very few of these studies have been done and even fewer of them are released in full to the general public. Where possible we will update as more information becomes available.
The different types of manual toothbrushes affect the planet in different ways. To give a summary of the current options available:
- A toothbrush made from recycled plastic may be the most eco-friendly choice.
- Bamboo is also a good choice, but isn’t necessarily the best.
- A plastic toothbrush that has replaceable heads is also a good choice.
- An aluminium toothbrush with replaceable heads is also a good choice.
Bamboo may seem like the most logical choice because it is a “natural” material. As a renewable resource it does have the lowest impact in terms of carbon emissions. This is especially true when compared to fossil fuels used for plastic.
However, carbon emissions are only one piece of the puzzle. There are other important factors to consider, such as the impact on human wellbeing. This human health burden can be scientifically measured, and is impacted by things such as manufacture and disposal.
The original research only looked at a relatively small sample of brushes to find out which is the most eco-friendly toothbrush. This study used that data and recommended that the best choice would be for the toothbrush makers to collect and recycle the waste from their brushes and packaging, to make new products. Another avenue to explore is the use of bio-based plastics.
There are some other viable alternatives which have not been fully assessed. Other brushes available include bamboo handles with replaceable heads and metal handles with replaceable heads.
In any case, a toothbrush where only the head is disposed of rather than the whole brush is going to produce less waste and require fewer new materials each time. The precise material of that handle is up to you.
The companies making toothbrushes don’t provide information about reduced packaging and plastic when using a brush with replaceable heads. But where we review such products we will give as much information as we can.
However, evidence is limited, so the options we list in this article are the best right now.
When choosing a new toothbrush, you have a lot of power. You can choose to spend your money on products that come from more environmentally friendly brands.
This is called ethical consumerism – supporting companies and manufacturers that are moving us closer to the ideal scenario.
In the sections below we list some of the options available in various categories.
We also explain the various factors to consider when choosing an eco-friendly toothbrush.
How to choose an eco-friendly toothbrush
The dental health care industry is evolving. But at the moment, any brush you pick will have a small amount of waste that cannot be reused or recycled.
But how can you limit the impact that you have?
What should you look out for when choosing an eco-friendly toothbrush?
There is very little research into this. But using general sustainability principles, you may want to think about the following options:
Consider the handle material.
- A single material is easier to recycle than multiple materials on one handle.
- Can it be recycled at home? Some plastics may be recycled kerbside, or you might have a garden waste collection that you could put a bamboo handle into?
- Find out more about how to recycle a manual toothbrush.
Think about the toothbrush bristles.
- Bio-based plastics reduce reliance on fossil fuels for plastic.
- At present there is not a good compostable option for toothbrush bristles – see our guide on recycling toothbrush bristles.
Pick a brush that has a longer lifespan.
- E.g. a reusable handle – a toothbrush with replaceable heads is the best option for minimising plastic waste
Choose the right product for you. Avoid gimmicks.
- Avoid buying something which you will use once or twice and then not use it again.
- You want to avoid having unused things sat at home, which is potentially a waste of materials (and money!).
- You need something that cleans effectively to be able to reduce your risk of developing dental decay or gum disease.
Choose a simple brush that is lightweight and doesn’t come with lots of accessories.
- It will require fewer raw materials to make.
- It is lighter to transport, reducing emissions.
Consider the packaging used by the company.
- Do they offer plastic free and/or recycled packaging?
- Can you recycle the packaging they send the brush to you in?
Think about how the product is delivered to you.
- Using existing mailing systems e.g. Royal Mail (UK) can make online shopping more environmentally friendly than next day courier services.
- Can you off-set the emissions? There is the option to off-set carbon emissions from delivery services when you buy the product.
Consider how you will dispose of the product when you are finished with it.
- This will vary depending on your local facilities.
- This means that a handle material made of recycled and recyclable plastic may be better than a bamboo handle (e.g. if you don’t have a garden waste collection).
Opt for a brush from a more ethical company.
- Check their environmental policies.
- See if they have a recycling scheme for when your toothbrush is no longer usable (we list these here).
- Avoid companies which are greenwashing – using environmentally friendly terminology for their own financial gain, without actually having a positive impact.
More eco-friendly toothbrush choices, grouped by handle type
When it comes to picking a sustainable toothbrush, the most obvious thing to think about is the material of the handle.
The most common traditional option is a plastic handle.
Bio-based plastics have less of an impact than plastics made from conventional fossil-fuel sources. That is because bio-based plastics use a renewable source for the material.
You will still need to consider what to do with them at the end of their useful lives, but many bio-based plastics can be recycled in some way. Biodegradable plastics are more of a challenge at present.
Plastic free toothbrushes are the alternative.
Some handles are made using “natural” or organic matter, such as wood. Bamboo is a popular option for toothbrush handles. Again, these are renewable resources which are normally seen as more environmentally friendly. They may also be compostable when you are finished with them.
Some handles are now being made from metals, for example aluminium brush handles. One benefit of metals is the ease of recycling and the fact that the recycled material can easily be used again.
Aluminium and stainless steel are two options for non plastic toothbrushes. Metal toothbrushes are almost always reusable, so just the head is changed every few months.
The handle itself is made from either aluminium or stainless steel, and can last for years.
The head is often some sort of plastic with nylon bristles.
The advantage is that the smaller heads will use less plastic. Bio-based plastics also reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Manufacturers advertise using between 60% and 88% less plastic than an average toothbrush.
|Reusable handle, less waste||Can only use heads from that one company – if the handle is guaranteed to last a lifetime it could potentially outlast the company!|
|Metal is easy to clean||Stainless steel is heavy – more emissions when shipping|
|Metal is durable and does not deteriorate – long lasting||Metals are technically a finite resource – they aren’t renewable.|
|Metal is easy to recycle||Not many options available|
|Potentially use recycled metal||Often an expensive option for the initial outlay|
|Aluminium is infinitely recyclable|
|Aluminium is lightweight, less energy required for shipping|
|Reduces the use of plastic – plastic free handle|
Examples of metal handled toothbrushes include:
- Barnaby’s Brush: stainless steel handle, bamboo replaceable head with charcoal infused nylon bristles.
- Colgate Link: aluminium handle, plastic replaceable head with nylon and other plastic bristles – buy it here from Boots, or read more in our Colgate Link review.
- Tooth.eco: recycled aluminium handle with a replaceable head. Find out more in our Tooth.eco review.
Bamboo handles are advertised as the plastic free alternative to regular toothbrushes.
They are often viewed as the most eco-friendly type of toothbrush.
- Bamboo manual toothbrushes have a lower impact than electric toothbrushes and plastic manual toothbrushes.
- Bamboo toothbrushes use an average of 11 g of plastic over the five years (when replaced every 3 months).
- Bamboo toothbrushes use 97% less plastic than an average plastic manual toothbrush.
However bamboo may not be the perfect solution we are all looking for.
The wide variety in bamboo cultivation practices may have a significant effect on the actual environmental impact of a bamboo handle toothbrush. In other words, you can still have a negative effect on the environment depending on how the bamboo is grown.
Also, despite having one of the lowest carbon footprints, the study found that bamboo handle toothbrushes have a worse overall impact on human health (measured in DALYs) compared to traditional plastic toothbrushes.
Bamboo brushes are not always recyclable. Schemes such as TerraCycle do not all accept the brushes. And if you do not have an option for recycling organic/garden waste at home, this brush will still end up at a landfill site.
So whilst the message can seem contradictory, it just highlights how difficult it is to pick out the best material for a toothbrush handle.
|Bamboo is a renewable resource.||Not necessarily sustainably sourced. Cutting back wild bamboo can impact the local environment.|
|Low use of pesticides during growth||Seems to only be sourced from China – long distance shipping will be required either for the material or for the final brush|
|Bamboo is naturally fast growing – up to a meter per day. It is quickly replaced||Bamboo can degrade with time, e.g. picking up toothpaste and saliva|
|Reduces the use of plastic – a plastic free handle||Bristles and staples need removing before the toothbrush handle can be composted.|
|Compostable (when bristles are removed)||Increasing popularity could cause bamboo to be planted as a mono crop, leading to a negative impact on the local environment|
|Lightweight – less fuel for transporting||Many brushes are advertised as plastic free, completely ignoring plastic in the bristles – this greenwashing can mislead customers into thinking that the brush is better than it is|
|Lots of options available|
|Affordable option for many people|
Examples of bamboo toothbrushes
We cover the options in more detail in our post on the best bamboo toothbrushes, but the 4 brushes we currently recommend are:
Bio-based plastic handle
A bio-based plastic is one that is derived from natural/plant-based resources instead of fossil fuels. The end structure is the same, it is just a different starting block.
An example is a handle made of plastic number 5, polypropylene. This plastic can be made using fossil fuels. Or it can be a bio-based plastic and made from corn starch.
Bio-based plastics can be independently assessed to confirm their percentage of bio-based material.
Bio-based plastic toothbrushes are sometimes also called plant based materials as castor oil or corn starch are used instead of petroleum.
This differs from other bioplastics, those labelled as biodegradable or compostable plastics. These types of plastics can be fossil fuel derived plastics or bio-based plastics. The difference is that the structure can be broken down, with the aid of microorganisms or under specific heat and pressure conditions.
These types of toothbrushes can come as a traditional manual toothbrush. Alternatively some come as a handle with replaceable heads.
|Uses a renewable resource for making plastic||Still has the same end of life difficulties with disposal as with conventional plastics. Sometimes worse as systems such as TerraCycle do not accept the material.|
|Alternative to fossil fuel based plastics.||Material can be derived from animal and marine sources and is not necessarily vegan or cruelty free.|
|Materials of biological origin might be less resource intensive to produce.||Often misleadingly called biodegradable when it is not. Bio-based plastic is not automatically biodegradable or compostable.|
|Relatively cheap to make (and coming down in price as technology improves).||Still producing new plastic which needs to be disposed of.|
|Can use existing technology for making the brush, just the source material is different||Where is it compostable, normally requires industrial composting facilities|
Bio-based plastic handles with fixed heads:
- Bogobrush Biodegradable Collection – available from Amazon
- TePe Good Brush
- The Humble Co Humble Brush Plant Based Toothbrush
Bio-based plastic handles with replaceable heads:
- Lamazuna replaceable head brush
- Radius Tour Travel toothbrush
- Radius Big Brush toothbrush – but I would warn against this due to plastic additives
- Yaweco Interchangeable Brush Head Toothbrush Type II
Recycled Plastic Handle
Currently it can be difficult to successfully recycle toothbrushes, although some schemes do exist.
Recycled plastic for new toothbrushes often comes from other items made from recycled plastic number 5 instead.
The previously mentioned study by Duane et al modelled a best case scenario for toothbrushes.
The researchers considered the environmental impact of toothbrushes that are made from recycled toothbrush plastic, and where the manufacturer is responsible for that process.
They found that toothbrushes made from recycled plastic from a toothbrush recycling scheme had the lowest carbon footprint and the overall lowest effect on human health.
|Diverts plastic from landfill and gives it a new use.||Needs to be disposed of responsibly when finished with.|
|Making use of materials that already exist.||Restricted options available at present|
|Does not need new plastic to be made.||Still the same end of life difficulties with disposal as with conventional plastics.|
|Plastic can be recycled using existing recycling pathways|
|Alternative to fossil fuel based plastics.|
|Lightweight – less fuel for transporting|
|Plastic is long lasting and easy to keep clean|
|Affordable option for many people|
|Can use existing technology for making the brush, just the source material is different|
Examples of recycled plastic handle brushes:
Important things to know if you’re researching eco-friendly toothbrushes
The following sections explain the various considerations when it comes to judging how eco-friendly a toothbrush is.
This research has contributed to the recommendations I’ve listed above for eco-friendly toothbrush choices.
1. Why toothbrushes are bad for the environment
Toothbrushes are one of a number of dental tools that are traditionally high in plastic but with a short shelf life.
This poses a problem to the environment because the plastic is normally created from fossil fuels. Fossil fuel based plastics use up a finite resource.
The Centre for International Environmental Law produced a report on Plastic & Climate. They explain that drilling for these fuels and transporting them disrupts the natural environment and releases greenhouse gases. Just accessing the resources destroys the land around it. Using the fossil fuels to produce plastics also produces further pollution, as does disposing of them when they are finished with. Then there are additional impacts on the environment as waste plastic sits in landfill or ends up in the oceans.
These plastics are bad for the environment.
Some dental products even have additional packaging for hygiene reasons. And we tend to buy them one at a time. All in all, there is a high packaging to product ratio.
All for something that isn’t used for very long.
Another problem is that plastics used in toothbrushes are hard to recycle. The handles are a mix of materials which need separating in specialist centres. Nylon bristles are also only able to be recycled in a small number of places. This means that toothbrushes normally end up at landfill sites.
2. The ‘perfect toothbrush’ is a myth
There is no such thing as a perfect toothbrush when it comes to choosing an eco-friendly toothbrush.
All brushes have downsides.
Given all the evidence I think the best option is a reusable handle made from recycled plastic. The heads should have minimal material, made from recycled plastic with bio-based plastic bristles.
But that is my opinion.
Bamboo may seem like the most logical choice because it is a “natural” material, and indeed it does have the lowest impact in terms of carbon emissions.
However, carbon emissions are only one piece of the puzzle. Carbon emissions can indirectly affect other factors which influence health. For example planting crops can lead to loss of biodiversity which can negatively affect human health. Bamboo fares worse when you take that into consideration.
Bio-based plastics are touted as a great option, but they are still creating new plastics which require careful disposal when finished with. It also distracts from finding other newer technologies. “Biodegradable” plastics are generally a poor option as they are difficult to recycle. The best use for bio-based plastics is where there is genuinely no other alternative material, such as for toothbrush bristles.
One specific company that differs is Reswirl. They have developed a bio-based biodegradable handle as well as preparing their own recycling systems. They ensure the brush is correctly recycled by asking you to send it back to them, and they separate out handle, bristle, and metal staples and then recycle the different materials. By ensuring nothing goes to landfill (or similar), they are creating a circular economy for themselves and are not contaminating existing systems. Whilst this is still being refined, it shows significant progress and also potential for the future.
Recycled material handles are the best option for toothbrush handles. Sadly there just aren’t many available.
It is also better to have a toothbrush with a replaceable head rather than replacing a whole toothbrush every 3 months.
3. Why a toothbrush with a replaceable head is a good choice
After you have considered the material of the handle, you should also consider whether a toothbrush with a replaceable head is an option.
These work similar to electric toothbrushes – you simply take the head with the bristles off, and swap it for a new one every 3-4 months.
The handles are available in various materials — plastic, bamboo, and metal.
Opting for a toothbrush with a replaceable head actually has a greater positive environmental impact than simply swapping traditional plastic for bio-based plastics. It is thought that this is because of the lower weight of plastics used.
When it comes to linking carbon footprint with negative impacts on health, a study in the British Dental Journal showed that toothbrushes with replaceable heads actually have the least impact. They even rank better than bamboo toothbrushes.
Examples that we have tested:
- Barnaby’s Brushes – metal handle with bamboo head
- Colgate Link – metal handle with plastic head
- Lamazuna replaceable head brush – plastic handle with plastic head
- Radius Big Brush toothbrush – plastic handle with plastic head – avoid due to Ecopure additive
- Radius Source toothbrush – plastic handle with plastic head
- Radius Tour Travel toothbrush – plastic handle with plastic head
- Yaweco Interchangeable Brush Head toothbrush – plastic handle with plastic head
4. Bamboo isn’t necessarily the most eco-friendly type of toothbrush
When looking for a more eco-friendly option for a toothbrush, bamboo can seem like an obvious choice.
This is probably because it is made of a “natural” material – bamboo.
Bamboo is a fast growing grass, often it is grown without chemicals, too.
Overall bamboo has the lowest carbon emissions compared to the other materials mentioned in this article.
Bamboo toothbrushes reduce our reliance on plastic, and have fewer negative effects on the environment.
In fact, Project Drawdown lists bamboo production on degraded land as one of their recommendations for reducing worldwide carbon emissions. They believe that it could help sequester carbon emissions. It is also a very cost effective solution. They recognise that these savings could be even greater where bamboo is substituted for other materials such as aluminium or plastic, such as the case for toothbrushes.
However when researchers looked and compared the carbon emissions and the impact on health, bamboo had mixed results. Studies looking at carbon emissions alone do not take into account other negative impacts on the environment, such as loss of biodiversity and air pollution.
So what is the problem with bamboo toothbrushes?
Bamboo brushes still require the use of water for growth of the material and in the manufacturing process. In this study, water consumption of bamboo brushes was the worst environmental outcome for the material and it ranked worse than some other materials for this. Water scarcity poses a global health burden which can be underestimated by the general public, depending on where in the world you are living!
One company, Bogobrush, originally used bamboo as a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic. They now use bio-based plastic and recycled plastic to make their brushes. They say they moved from bamboo because:
- Production was inefficient and created enormous product damage and waste
- Wooden toothbrushes harbour more moisture and bacteria
- They found communication with overseas bamboo suppliers challenging
- They did not want the addition greenhouse gas production and energy use of shopping bamboo to the US from overseas
- It was difficult to have transparency into the harvest and production of the bamboo used in their brushes
Bamboo may not be as good for the environment as we expect if it is not sustainably sourced either. Where the bamboo comes from will have a massive contribution to the environment as harvesting it can cause damage to the local area.
5. Manufacturer claims can be misleading (greenwashing)
Greenwashing is when companies mislead customers by suggesting their products are environmentally friendly than they actually are.
Shopping for environmentally friendly products can be a bit of a minefield due to lack of evidence and genuinely not knowing which options are better for the environment.
The answer often isn’t that simple.
Companies that are greenwashing will launch products, adverts, and campaigns promoting their products as good for the environment in order to gain sales.
The claims are unproven and are often vague but entice consumers into buying them as an alternative to traditional products.
Many terms used are also not regulated and don’t have official definitions. Companies may use these to try to get you to choose their product over somebody else’s, when in actual fact there is no benefit to that particular product.
The claims also contradict the company’s own environmental and sustainability practices, which are not environmentally friendly.
This process is called greenwashing.
Some key things to look out for:
|Claim / description of product||Why it’s a problem|
|Recyclable||1. “Recyclable” is not regulated|
2. It varies depending on your location and who collects your waste
3. Whilst something may in theory be recyclable, it can be hard to find the facilities that offer it
4. The material may not be useable after recycling process
|Biodegradable||1. The term isn’t regulated.|
2. This is simply the process of breaking down into smaller pieces. In theory, almost all materials are biodegradable. It’s just that some things can take a very long term (hundreds, or even thousands of years).
3. There’s no guarantee how long the product will take to break down, unless it has been independently tested.
|Compostable||1. Products can undergo independent testing to prove they are compostable.|
2. Compostable may mean home or industrial composting, and you need to check the label to see which one applies.
3. Compostable materials break down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water, with the biomass being beneficial to the soil.
4. There’s no guarantee how long the product will take to break down, unless it has been independently tested.
|Plant-based (bio-based)||1. Plant-based/bio-based plastics still pose the same difficulties in recycling and degrading. The difference only comes from the fact that they are made from a renewable (plant-based) resource.|
|“Plastic free toothbrush”||1. Some companies tend to ignore their nylon bristles which are plastic and which are hard to recycle.|
2. Some companies pretend bio-based plastics aren’t plastics, just because they don’t come from oil/fossil fuels.
In their bid to gain attention, some companies also place misleading adverts. They use the term eco-friendly or environmentally friendly without saying how or why that is the case. Again, this greenwashing is trying to get consumers to spend money on their products without actually changing their practices to benefit the environment.
6. Recycling your brush is important
Manufacturing and transport of toothbrushes are major contributors to the carbon footprint of a toothbrush.
But what we do with the toothbrushes at the end of their short useful life is also very important.
As discussed earlier, toothbrushes are difficult to recycle.
They can’t normally be recycled with household recycling schemes.
And we want to avoid sending them to landfill. Getting as close to zero waste as possible will reduce your carbon footprint.
So what options are there?
They need to be recycled using special equipment. There are two ways of doing this:
- Manufacturer schemes – take back schemes, for example Reswirl.
- Schemes where the consumer organises for recycling, such as by TerraCycle.
Our page on how to recycle a manual toothbrush has specific information for recycling different types of brushes.
7. Bristles are a challenge when creating an eco-friendly toothbrush
With the current materials available, plastic is inevitable when it comes to manufacturing toothbrush bristles.
Plastic bristles give the most efficient cleaning without degrading too quickly. They are also safe to use on your teeth for extended periods of time.
Non plastic alternatives for bristles are animal hair, which relies on animal farming. This is not an option for people with concerns about animal welfare. There is also some evidence to suggest that these “natural” bristles store more bacteria.
On the other hand vegan, non-plastic bristles (such as those made from natural plant fibres) aren’t directly harmful to animals but may be more harmful indirectly. For example if it creates more emissions because it needs replacing more often.
Bio-based plastic bristles are the best option on balance as the use of a renewable resource is less harmful than traditional plastics.
Environmentally toothbrushes are good to consider, but not at the cost of your health.
Anything which doesn’t do a good enough job cleaning your teeth will lead to a build up in plaque. Potentially this will mean you require dental treatments, which release even greater emissions.
At present, there isn’t such a thing as a 100% natural, plastic free toothbrush that has no impact on the planet.
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.
Use your spending power to make better choices for the environment. This ethical consumerism will drive the market to change. It can also mean reducing the overall harm e.g. by supporting a company that uses factories which use green energy, or which pay workers a living wage.
8. Don’t be fooled by terms such ‘bioplastics’, ‘biodegradable’, ‘bio-based’ and ‘compostable’
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. The broken down material may include water, smaller bits of plastics or toxic residues.
- 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. The biomass remaining after composting will be beneficial to the earth.
This covers a wide range of different materials, each with their own drawbacks.
When analysing products that use the term ‘bioplastic’ or other eco-friendly terminology, it’s important to bear the following in mind:
Biodegradable is a difficult claim to support
The problem is that “biodegradable” can be a misleading label. In theory most things are biodegradable because over time they will break down into smaller pieces. It’s just that some things can take a very long term (hundreds, or even thousands of years).
It is possible to label something as biodegradable without independent verification. This is different to labelling something as compostable, which is more regulated by advertising standards.
Even with independent verification to confirm the biodegradability or compostability of the materials, it does not mean that it is the best material for the environment. To assess an environmental impact, a life cycle assessment needs to be done. The results can vary depending on where you live. Unfortunately very few studies have been done on this. These materials are not always the best option for the environment.
Companies use misleading terms, potentially greenwashing consumers.
It also leads to a lot of confusion for consumers who are trying their best to have a lesser effect on the environment, but who are potentially pulled in by greenwashing by producers. (Read on for more about greenwashing).
In some cases, manufacturers and companies even label products as “plastic free” because they see their bio-based plastics in a different category to conventional plastics. This is misleading.
Replacing plastics with bio-based plastics only solves half a problem.
Mostly when discussing bioplastics for toothbrushes, we are discussing bio-based plastics. This means that the same structure of plastic is being made, but the only difference is that a renewable resource is being used instead of fossil fuels.
This only solves half the problem – the starting point for the plastics is more sustainable by using biomass (crops like castor bean oil) instead of conventional fossil fuels. They have a lower carbon footprint.
But these bio-based plastics still have the same disposal needs. In fact, in some respects they are more difficult to recycle as many curbside recycling collections won’t accept bio-based plastics, and neither does TerraCycle (the main alternative recycling method for toothbrushes).
Biodegradable plastics need different recycling processes
Project Drawdown also explains one of the other biggest challenges for bioplastics is separation from other waste and appropriate processing.
Biodegradable and compostable plastics need labelling to fully explain what this means. I discuss this in more detail in the section below: “is there such a thing as a fully biodegradable toothbrush?”.
These types of plastics need sorting from conventional plastics (for which there are already recycling systems in place).
Unless the sorting schemes are well organised for disposing of biodegradable and compostable plastics, they are not any more sustainable than conventional plastic materials.
Biodegradable plastics could be made from either bio-based plastics or conventional fossil fuel based plastics. Again, in this respect, it is potentially only solving half the problem (the waste end).
By using bioplastics we are still relying on single use plastics
Using bioplastics (bio-based and biodegradable types), we do not change our reliance on plastics, especially single use plastics.
Swapping out one type of plastic for another does not encourage a change in society to reduce the overall amount of waste produced. We will still have the same problems with either detrimental production processes and/or waste ending up in landfill and our oceans.
In this respect, bioplastics are not a good alternative to conventional plastics.
Biodegradable plastics with additives are not a good alternative
Some conventional plastics can have chemicals added to them to speed up how fast they break down. These additives create an oxo-degradable plastic.
They were originally designed as a short term solution to littering, to prevent environmental harm. But evidence now shows the breakdown results in microplastics being released during breakdown.
These microplastics harm the environment. It can also encourage some people to litter, as they mistakenly think the plastic will break down and do no harm. Finally, these plastics can cause damage to editing recycling facilities.
Few groups with environment 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 European bioplastics, Greenpeace & WWF.
For this reason I would recommend avoiding plastic products that advertise having additives to speed up break down (for example the Radius Big Brush toothbrush containing Ecopure).
9. There’s no such thing as a fully biodegradable toothbrush
At present, there is no commercially available and independently verified fully biodegradable toothbrush.
There are some brushes with “biodegradable” handles and/or bristles.
Biodegradable handles include:
- Bamboo – compostable in some circumstances (see below).
- Biodegradable plastics – may break down in industrial composting facilities.
If something is biodegradable, it simply means that it breaks down in the presence of bacteria. This is possible for some types of plastic. None of the biodegradable handles I have come across have independent testing to support their claims.
Companies use the term biodegradable for some plastics. Indeed, some plastics are biodegradable. But you should not believe that they will break down into something non-harmful unless it has had independent verification.
The bristles are more difficult to make biodegradable than the handle, as we discuss in our post on recycling toothbrush bristles. The current standard is nylon.
Nylon 6 is the most commonly used material for toothbrush bristles and this is not biodegradable or compostable.
And bio-based nylon is no different. Bio-based nylon has the same final structure as nylon made from oil. It is only the initial resource that is different.
There is some evidence that nylon 4 does degrade in soil, but it is not well researched.
Tokiwa et al studied the biodegradability of plastics and produced a paper summarising their findings.
Nylon 4 has been shown to be broken down by microorganisms in specific environments. It is biodegradable. In controlled tests, it was broken down as quickly as 4 months so, in theory, it is compostable.
However, the authors of the paper do again state that the ability of a plastic to be broken down depends on both its physical and chemical properties. Because of this, it is important that individual products be tested independently.
There aren’t any studies about nylon 4 toothbrush bristles so be cautious when manufacturers advertise their bristles as biodegradable. I also can’t find information on manufacturers of nylon 4 toothbrush bristles, nor toothbrushes that use them.
So yes, whilst a fully biodegradable toothbrush is possible in theory, in practice it is not yet a viable option. And in any case, we should be aiming for compostable as opposed to biodegradable. And being compostable still does not mean it is the best option for the environment.
Because of this, I’m unable to recommend a ‘best biodegradable toothbrush’ with what is currently available.
10. The bristles on fully compostable brushes don’t perform well
People are on the lookout for a zero waste toothbrush, and the only way to achieve this is having a fully compostable toothbrush.
Non-certified compostable toothbrushes are available, but I would not recommend one.
Some biodegradable materials are also compostable. This is what we normally think of when biodegradable is discussed. When looking for something biodegradable, we normally look for something that can be thrown on a compost heap with no problems.
If something is compostable it will break down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water. The biomass remaining after composting will be beneficial to the earth. This usually requires specific environments.
Whilst many materials are biodegradable, not all of them are compostable. All compostable material is biodegradable though.
It is important to differentiate between biodegradable and compostable, although the two are often used interchangeably.
Compostable materials and products will break down into biomass, carbon dioxide and water.
The biomass remaining after composting will be beneficial to the earth. This is the “compost”.
The use of 100% compostable materials is the only way you would get a zero waste toothbrush.
That said, an ideal compostable toothbrush would have a compostable handle (e.g. bamboo) with compostable bristles.
Bamboo is a compostable material. However this can be affected by things such as handle shape and oils and paints used. This is why brush handles are not automatically labelled as compostable.
There are some compostable materials used for toothbrush bristles e.g. plant fibres or animal hair (see here for more information). They are not necessarily good alternatives to plastic bristles.
Animal hair has been linked to increased levels of bacteria which can lead to dental problems.
Plant fibres do not stand up to the pressure created by brushing twice daily and would not last more than a few days in some cases. This means they need to be replaced more often, which is more detrimental to the environment than one brush that lasts 3 months.
The UK follows guidelines for testing and labelling products as compostable. This is to ensure there is no contamination of the final compost product. Items should be clearly labelled as home compostable or suitable for industrial compost. Each of the labels below follow the relevant legislation, and you can find out more about that by going to their pages.
|DIN-Geprüft Home Compostable||Owned and awarded by DIN CERTCO||Identifies that the product or material can be added to a home composting pile.|
|DIN-Geprüft Industrial Compostable||Owned and awarded by DIN CERTCO||Identifies that the product or material will be broken down in industrial composting facilities.|
|Seedling||Owned by European Bioplastics Awarded by DIN CERTCO or TÜV Austria Belgium||Typically used alongside the DIN CERTCO or TÜV Austria Belgium marks.|
|OK Compost Home||Owned and awarded by TÜV Austria Belgium||Identifies that the product or material can be added to a home composting pile.|
|OK Compost Industrial||Owned and awarded by TÜV Austria Belgium||Identifies that the product or material will be broken down in industrial composting facilities.|
Note that these are the most significant labels. There are many others available worldwide and which may be on your product. You can find out more information by going to the Ecolabel Index website.
As with biodegradable products, compostable items are not necessarily the best option for the environment. Sometimes recycling used materials may be a more environmentally friendly option.
The only way to assess this is with proper life cycle assessment, and there is a lack of these available.
11. If you’re shopping for a vegan toothbrush, look for independent verification
Depending on your ethical standpoint, you may want to choose vegan products.
Vegan toothbrushes are those that avoid using any animal-based ingredients during manufacture or in the final product. Normally, vegan products are also cruelty free as they do not test on animals (but this is not always the case).
Commonly found animal based materials in dentistry include boar hair bristles in toothbrushes. These are advertised as a plastic free alternative to nylon bristles.
Beeswax is another common material used for coating things like bamboo handles. Beeswax is an animal derived product and would stop a toothbrush being considered vegan.
Not all non-vegan ingredients are obvious. Some ingredients may be made from animals or from plants, and packaging will not always tell you which one.
The only way to be sure that a product is 100% vegan and/or cruelty free is to look for products which have been independently verified. Examples of independent verification for vegan toothbrushes include:
|Leaping Bunny Program||Cruelty Free International||Logo indicates that the whole brand is cruelty free.|
|PETA bunny||People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)||Has two different logos available.|
|Certified Vegan||Vegan Action||All personal care products with this label are vegan and cruelty free.|
|Vegan Trademark||Vegan Society||All personal care products with this label are vegan and cruelty free.|
Whilst animal derived products pose an ethical question, they are also relevant to the environment.
There is no direct evidence to compare animal based materials versus synthetically made materials when it comes to the impact on the environment. There are environmental impact assessments of some individual materials, but not much direct comparison. It is generally accepted that raising animals is resource intensive and has a negative effect on the environment.
Companies that choose to certify their products as vegan show a consideration for the world around them. Although it is not a definite way to know your product is more environmentally friendly, it is a step in the right direction.
Certified vegan toothbrushes which we have tested include:
- Organically Epic Bamboo Brush
- The Humble Toothbrush range (bamboo option, replaceable head option, bio-based plastic option and recycled plastic option)
- Radius Tour Travel toothbrush
- Radius Big Brush toothbrush – avoid against due to ecopure additive
- Radius Source Toothbrush