How sustainable is your toothbrush?

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin have examined the sustainability of different types of toothbrush to ascertain which is best for the planet and associated human health.

Although the toothbrush is a widely recommended healthcare device worldwide, there is currently little quantitative data available for its impact on the planet. The research study, in collaboration with the Eastman Dental Institute at University College London, is published in the British Dental Journal. It represents the first time a life-cycle assessment (LCA) has been used to measure the environmental consequences of a healthcare product.

Researchers looked at different manufacturing models of the toothbrush and measured the environmental impact (carbon footprint) and human health impact of them. The electric toothbrush, the standard plastic brush, the plastic brush with replaceable head, and the bamboo brush were used. The team found that the electric toothbrush was comparatively harmful for planetary health.

The findings highlight the human health burden of the toothbrush manufacturing process. The electric toothbrush causes 10 hours of disability measured in Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs), mainly for the people associated with producing the devices. This is five times higher than a normal plastic brush.

The team found that the most environmentally sustainable toothbrush was not bamboo, but a hypothetical continually recycled plastic toothbrush.

Dr Brett Duane, lead researcher, said: “Our research shows that electric toothbrushes are actually harmful for the planet and to the people involved in the manufacturing process and distribution … We have also shown bamboo toothbrushes are not the answer. Using them just stops land from being put to better use, such as helping biodiversity, or in growing forests to offset carbon emissions”.