A recent study showed the environmental impact of a common hygiene item. Toothbrushes were found one of the contributing objects to pollution, which causes sustainability issues.
The association of toothbrushes and environmental pollution was unveiled by researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), a research university in Ireland. In general, toothbrushes could be a significant contributor to plastic waste. Its contribution could further the imbalance in sustainability, which involves the biosphere and humans. However, specific types might reduce the impact of toothbrushes on the environment. They published their findings in the British Dental Journal.
Countries and Companies with High Plastic Waste
Plastic pollution was a hidden environmental issue in the early 1990s. But in the 1960s, some scientists who were conducting plankton studies noticed the number of plastics in the ocean. This was followed by studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many of these studies were focused on beaches and developed ways to resolve the problem. Yet their efforts were not enough as more plastic was sent to the open sea, until now.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, out of 85 countries reported to export and import plastic scrap and waste, Japan and Turkey had the highest exports and highest imports, respectively, in 2019. For net plastic exporters, Japan exported 535,840 tons of plastic waste. It was followed by Germany with 413,224 tons, the US with 317,627 tons, France with 91,667 tons, and Italy with 83,384 tons of net plastic exports. For net plastic importers, Turkey imported 225,376 tons of plastic waste. It was followed by Vietnam with 135,027 tons, Malaysia with 78,791 tons, Laos with 65,976 tons, and India with 23,904 tons of net plastic imports.
Meanwhile, certain popular manufacturers were found with millions of metric tons of plastic waste in 2017 or 2018. In association with Ellen MacArthur Foundation, these companies self-reported their estimated plastic waste production for either year. Coca Cola had the largest plastic waste at 3 million metric tons. It was followed by Nestle with 1.7 million metric tons, Danone with 750,000 metric tons, Unilever with 610,000 metric tons, and Colgate-Palmolive with 287,008 metric tons. The latter two companies are known for several hygiene product brands.
The same report from the foundation translated the amount of plastic waste in the number of blue whales. Approximately 28,700 blue whales for Coca Cola's plastic waste, 15,000 blue whales for Nestle's, 7,000 blue whales for Danone's, 6,000 blue whales for Unilever's, and 3,000 blue whales for Colgate-Palmolive's.
Toothbrush and the Environment
At TCD, researchers investigated the life cycle of multiple types of toothbrushes. This was correlated to one major emitter of environmental pollutants: healthcare. Despite being aware of these pollutants, the sector and the general public failed to realize a problematic loop. Healthcare would address medical conditions experienced by people. But the sector would require items to treat patients. The same items could end up in the ocean or improperly disposed on land, which would cause health problems. As such, the loop effectively contributes to the ever-growing pollution. If sustainability steps were applied, the sector would have maintained the balance between nature and humans.
For this study, researchers focused on toothbrushes – a daily item used by people to maintain dental health. Dental experts recommend people to replace their toothbrush every few months. However, most toothbrushes in the market are made of plastic. Each toothbrush can take years to be completely degraded into nothing. And during the degradation process, the soil and water are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.
"There are billions of toothbrushes used and discarded every year. Our research shows that electric toothbrushes are actually harmful for the planet and to the people involved in the manufacturing process and distribution," said Dr. Brett Duane, the study's lead author and associate professor in Public Dental Health At TCD.
The team studied four toothbrush types: the traditional plastic, the electric variant, the plastic manual with replaceable head, and the bamboo manual. They applied the life cycle assessment or LCA methodology to quantify the environmental impact of all toothbrush types within five years. A total of 16 environmental categories were used to score the environmental impact of a toothbrush. One of the environmental impacts noted in the paper was climate change.
Results showed that among four types, the electric toothbrush was found with the highest environmental impact. It had the greatest influence in 15 of the 16 categories. While the toothbrush types with the lowest impact were the bamboo and the plastic with replaceable heads. Due to the severity of its impact, electric toothbrushes were determined with 11 times greater influence on climate change, compared to bamboo toothbrushes.
The assessment also included the carbon footprint and human health impact for each toothbrush type. The human health impact or disability-adjusted life years (DALY) was significant from electric toothbrushes. The product type was linked to 10 hours of DALY, which represented 10 hours of disability. It was mainly correlated to people involved in the manufacturing and production of such a product. The DALY score of electric toothbrushes was even five times higher than the DALY score of typical plastic toothbrushes.
Researchers concluded that the findings could be helpful for consumers. Those who might be looking for recommendations should try bamboo or plastic toothbrushes with replaceable heads if they want to help the environment. The choice might not eliminate plastic pollution in an instant, but it would certainly reduce the waste from toothbrushes. Thus, those toothbrushes might increase the sustainability of both man-made products and planetary health.
Dr. Duane commented that recyclable plastic toothbrushes do not take up much space, compared to traditional plastic toothbrushes. The former does not require lots of water as well to be created and recycled. The main idea is keeping the plastic material in toothbrushes within the recycling chain. Doing so decreases the plastic waste output of involved sectors. Though, a system must be developed and deployed to collect toothbrushes and recycle them into new products. If plastic is allowed to leave the recycling chain, it should be broken down easily by nature into harmless parts.