Nova Scotia·Waves of Change

Going green and keeping your teeth clean isn't a simple task

Toothbrushes made of bamboo are marketed as a viable alternative to plastic toothbrushes. From the packaging to the bristles to the handle, we look at whether this is really reducing your environmental footprint and keeping your dentist happy.

Bamboo toothbrushes are marketed as a viable alternative to plastic. But it's not so straightforward

Bamboo toothbrushes are marketed as a viable option for consumers who want to reduce their environmental footprint. (Robert Short/CBC)

Update, Nov. 21, 2018: This article has been updated to include information from the Brush with Bamboo company. 

Kate Pepler has been using a bamboo toothbrush for several years. When it reaches the end of its life cycle, she uses a pair of pliers to remove the bristles. The handle, made from bamboo, goes in the compost and she puts the bristles in the recycling.

She admits it's more time-consuming than just tossing it away, but it's worth it because it's better than using plastic.

"I think one of the things we need to wrap our heads around, is there is no 'away,'" said Pepler. "When you throw something in the garbage, it doesn't actually go away."

Kate Pepler, the owner of The Tare Shop in Halifax’s North End, sells bamboo toothbrushes. She has been using them for several years. (CBC)

This week, Pepler will be opening a new zero-waste shop in Halifax. She expects these toothbrushes to be among the most popular items because they're a green alternative to throwing plastic toothbrushes in the garbage. They also keep her teeth clean.

"I'd say it's pretty good; no cavities," she said.

The toothbrushes on her shelves, Brush with Bamboo, come in a cardboard box with printed information outlining all of their environmental benefits. CBC unwrapped the packaging and took a closer look to see if it's truly a viable option.

Not all packaging is green

The brush comes in a cardboard box that can be recycled or composted.

Brush with Bamboo founder Ro Kumar said the wrapper in the box is made of cellophane, a totally biodegradable product.

Cellophane is compostable in some jurisdictions across Canada, but Halifax is not one of them. Kumar suggested that Haligonians can instead put the wrapper in their own personal compost pile or simply bury it in the dirt. 

Matt Keliher, manager of solid waste for the Halifax Regional Municipality, said that if that wrapper is put in a green compost bin, it will be removed and put in the trash.

"Our system doesn't take any compostable plastic," Keliher said. "One, it looks like plastic and will be pulled off when we can pull it off. Two, it's compostable and biodegradable typically under lab conditions and not under real-life conditions in a compost facility that [...] takes 25,000 tonnes of material every year."

Because the cardboard packaging has a window, it also comes wrapped in plastic, which is 'plant-based.' (CBC)

The bamboo handle can be composted in Halifax's municipal system. The bristles, which the consumer is told to remove, cannot be recycled in the Halifax region and will end up in the landfill. 

"The most important piece to the recycling system is having a market to sell those materials to. And I have yet to hear of a market that wants to purchase used toothbrushes," said Keliher​.

However Kumar said that certain stores have takeback programs to collect nylon bristles, so consumers may be able to find solutions depending on where they live. 

Dental hygienist weighs in

Wendy Stewart, a dental hygienist who also teaches at the faculty of dentistry at Dalhousie University, was given a bamboo toothbrush at a conference last year.

"The bamboo toothbrush display kind of created the biggest buzz. Everyone wants to try to protect the environment and it sounded like a really good idea," said Stewart.

After trying it, she said there were some aspects she liked and others she didn't.

Wendy Stewart, a registered dental hygienist, says there needs to be more research done on bamboo toothbrushes. (CBC)

The brand she tried had very soft bristles, which is good for people with receding gums or who have had oral surgery or are undergoing chemotherapy.

But overall, she wasn't impressed.

"For the average patient, I didn't feel like it removed enough plaque so my teeth didn't have that clean feeling," said Stewart.

She went on to say that the bamboo handle wasn't ideal either.

"I prefer a thicker grip. Ergonomically it's easier to place a toothbrush if it has a good handle. And I also found that the bamboo kind of retained some of the leftover toothpaste and it left kind of a slimy feeling on the handle."

Overall, the bamboo toothbrushes use less plastic than traditional ones. (Sabrina Fabian/CBC)

The products she gives out in her clinic are approved by the American Dental Association. These are not.

"I don't think a lot of research has been done on the bamboo toothbrush. But as we move forward, hopefully they will focus not just on the environmental impact of the toothbrush but on its functionality as well," said Stewart.

Next steps

Moving forward will require input from both government and industry, according to Mark Butler, policy director at the Ecology Action Centre.

Ultimately, recycling should be easy, he said.

"You don't have to put your glasses on and do an hour worth of research before you put stuff in a blue bin," said Butler.

He suggested that all plastic be standardized so that it can all be recycled. He also suggested companies develop a system whereby the consumer would return the plastic to the producer to be recycled, like we do for electronics.

Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre says this type of product is a step in the right direction, but suggests industry standards to improve recyclability. (CBC)

"If everybody who made anything out of plastic, like manufacturers who make stuff, they knew they had to deal with them when the consumer was finished with them, it would drive standardization and efficiencies," said Butler.

He said some countries, such as France, are much further ahead of Canada when it comes to recycling plastic.

Earlier this year, Canada signed on to the Oceans Plastics Charter and committed to a more "sustainable approach to the management of plastics." The plan includes working with industry to find 100 percent recyclables where viable alternatives do not exist, by 2030.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sabrina Fabian is a bilingual reporter based in Halifax with more than 10 years experience. She has worked in TV, radio, online and in print. She is originally from Montreal and previously worked in Banff and Calgary.

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