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How did brushing your teeth become part of the plastics 'problem?'

brushing teeth
Clare Goldsberry bristles at the latest salvo in the "Planet or Plastic" campaign waged by National Geographic.

I had to do a double-take when I saw the headline of an article in my daily online edition of National Geographic on June 14: “How your toothbrush became a part of the plastic crisis.” This is part of the yearlong Nat Geo effort to get us to commit to doing away with plastics in its “Planet or Plastic” campaign. According to the article, a billion toothbrushes will be thrown away in the United States this year, most of them plastic. So how did this become a problem?

It seems that oral hygiene has become popular since plastic toothbrushes were developed in the 1930s, when DuPont first developed nylon bristles.

For many years, only the wealthy cared about their teeth. The Smithsonian has a gold-plated toothbrush handle with animal-hair bristles that belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Common people, if they cared about their oral hygiene, used wooden-handled toothbrushes with hog bristles. In fact, you can still buy a toothbrush with hog bristles that come from the hide of hogs that have been slaughtered for meat. My bet is there’s not a vegan in the world who would touch one of those! Nieman Marcus sells them from a company in Italy, C.O. Bigelow, for $9 per brush. The handle looks plastic but the ad didn’t say what material it was made from.

SmileCare sells adult, eco-friendly toothbrushes with biodegradable handles and 30 tufts in four rows of DuPont nylon bristles. That doesn’t exactly take care of the plastic “problem” when it comes to the bristles, and no mention was made of the biodegradable material that is used to make the handles. The toothbrushes are sold on Amazon for $30.99 for a pack of 48.

There are also bamboo-handled toothbrushes, but the bristles' composition is not disclosed. Zero Waste Club sells the bamboo brushes for $5.50 each.

The National Geographic article provides readers with a complete history of how the plastic toothbrush came to be, beginning with the Buddha, who “chewed sticks into fluffy-ended scrubbers to clean his teeth.” I suppose that would work even today. There are plenty of trees thanks to a warming planet. The Roman author Pliny the Elder suggested picking one’s teeth with a porcupine quill, noted the article.

The Chinese supposedly came up with the idea of hog bristles set into bone or a wooden handle in the 1400s, said National Geographic, which became the forerunner of the modern toothbrush. Twentieth century wars promoted good oral hygiene as a way to maintain one’s teeth, even on the battlefield.

The article laments that if everyone replaced their toothbrushes three times a year, as recommended, that would amount to about 23 billion toothbrushes that get trashed annually around the world.

Let’s get real: Are wood-handled toothbrushes with hog bristles really any better than those with plastic handles and nylon bristles? I doubt it. Maybe we could start chewing sticks or quit brushing and use only wooden toothpicks.

The real problem is that these articles address the smallest plastic products—drinking straws, stirrers, toothbrushes, plastic cutlery and so forth. Replacements for drinking straws include not only paper, but glass and steel! Yes, I saw an ad on Lonely Whale for glass drinking straws! I wonder what their liability insurance costs are just in case some child bites down on one of those and swallows glass! And steel straws? You’ve got to be kidding! Does anyone realize the tremendous amount of energy it takes to produce anything made of steel? And can you imagine what your drink would taste like?

I don’t hear anyone complaining about all the plastic in their computers, TVs, mobile phones, automobiles, refrigerators, clothing, carpeting and other products that they use every day and couldn’t do without. If you really don’t like plastic, eliminate it from your life! Impossible, you say? Then you must acknowledge that plastic really is fantastic!

Planet or plastic? We don’t have to choose—we can have both. We just need people to stop throwing their trash into the environment and giving plastic a bad name.

Image: Wayhome Studio/Adobe

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