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 British Plastics Federation / 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 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 Material||Recycling Options|
|Bamboo handles||Home composting|
Garden waste recycling
Specialist toothbrush recycling
|Bio-based plastic handles||Plastic recycling collections (sometimes)|
Specialist toothbrush recycling (sometimes)
|“Compostable” or “biodegradable” plastic handles||Home 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 material||Household 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.
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!
One company seeking to work around this is Reswirl. They use a bio-based biodegradable handle, reducing the impact on production and at end-of-life. They ensure that it is correctly recycled by asking you to send the toothbrushes back to them instead of using an existing system. They are preparing their own systems to separate out handle, bristle, and metal staples and then recycle all of these materials. By ensuring nothing goes to landfill (or similar), they are creating a circular economy for themselves. Whilst this is still being refined, it shows significant progress and also potential for the future.
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.
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 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 UK
There are currently four TerraCycle schemes you can use in the UK to recycle your toothbrush and other dental care products..
Three of these are free to use (Colgate, Phillips and Spotlight), and one involves paying for your own box.
Three of the schemes focus on oral health products, although each scheme accepts different items.
One of the schemes accepts only dental retainers.
Colgate and hello Oral Care Recycling Programme. 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.
Philips Dental Care Recycling. Phillips sponsors this scheme. It provides free public drop-off locations (find a map of them here). Only a few products are accepted, different to the Colgate scheme. But the 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.
Spotlight Oral Care Recycle Programme For Aligners. Spotlight is a smaller toothbrush brand, which has spotted the problem with waste from dental aligners (such as those from Invisalign treatment). It has 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 £134.21). 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. 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 £151.39, 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.
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 of over 200g (approximately 15 pieces of oral care products) with points.
The points are used as a donation to the school, charity or nonprofit of the sender’s choice.
For every 1kg of dental care products sent into TerraCycle, 100 TerraCycle points are awarded (there is a minimum of 2kg per shipment).
To redeem the points as financial donations, a minimum of 1,000 points or £10 is required.
Anyone can sign up to the programme as a private collector or a public location, which will be visible on the relevant TerraCycle map.
Anyone can sign up to the Colgate and Phillips 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 Accepted||What Is Not Accepted|
|Colgate Oral Care Recycling||All brands of: toothpaste tubes and caps,|
Toothbrush outer packaging
|Dental Floss and Floss Containers,|
Denture Adhesives Packaging,
Denture Tablets Packaging,
Denture Cream Tubes,
Mouthwash Plastic Bottles,
Tubes that did not contain toothpaste,
Outer packaging that did not contain toothbrushes,
Cartons that did not contain toothpaste
|Philips Dental Care Recycling||Electric toothbrush heads and covers,|
Nozzles from electric water flosser,
Interdental brushes and floss sticks/picks,
Plastic dental floss container
|Battery operated toothbrushes,|
Electric toothbrush handles,
Toothpaste tubes and caps,
Outer cardboard and plastic packaging for toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and floss containers,
|Spotlight Oral Care Recycling||All dental aligners and packaging||Anything else|
|Oral Care Waste and Packaging – Zero Waste Box™||Toothpaste tubes and caps, |
Electric toothbrush heads which don’t contain an RFID microchip,
|Electric toothbrushes, “smart” brush heads with RFID microchip, |
Bio-based plastic toothbrushes,
Wooden and bamboo toothbrushes,
Criticism of TerraCycle
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 UK, companies offering take back systems for products bought from them include:
We have had further clarification from British company Reswirl, who explain their own recycling processes. They do not simply send on to Terracycle. They use specific facilities for each of the components of their brush and packaging. Although they are a new company and yet to achieve a critical mass for completing the cycle, they clearly have the right systems in place.
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:
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.
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.