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Dentistry, the toothbrush and sustainability

Blog Author Peter Dyer

Blog Date 11/07/2019

(c) Getty Images

Anyone who watched the “Blue Planet” series with David Attenborough or more recently the “War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita” (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani) couldn’t help but be moved by the realisation that our reliance on plastics is causing havoc to the environment. 

The plastic-free July campaign has also made me think, what can we do in dentistry to help reduce plastic usage, and reverse the dire consequences of using this material in such large quantities?

I recently took part in a Radio 4 programme about the history of the toothbrush, and a fellow interviewee, Sophie Thomas, a design and sustainability expert, highlighted two statistics, which are quite shocking. 

Firstly, if we each use one toothbrush every three months in the UK, we are disposing of approximately 200 million brushes each year. Secondly, research has shown that it can take 400 years for a plastic toothbrush to degrade. 

Where on earth do they all go? Sophie, whose interest in toothbrushes was prompted when she noticed that many toothbrushes appeared to be washed up on the seaside. She started picking them up and now has over 100 in her collection. It seems that we flush toothbrushes away or they go to landfill sites, many of which are close to rivers and the sea. Once in the sea they float because of their density and end up on beaches or as has been found, within the stomachs of birds.

There is therefore a huge challenge facing us. 

On the one hand we know the effects of not cleaning our teeth and the importance of brushing, but on the other hand, what should we be using that could have less of an impact on our environment? 

Plastic toothbrushes are currently made from several different types of plastic, which makes it difficult to recycle. 

The bristles are made of a different plastic -usually nylon - from the handle which cannot currently be recycled.

Manufacturers are looking at producing alternatives, using products like bamboo, although the nylon bristles still present a challenge. We’ve yet to find something to replace it that is as effective, yet recyclable. 

One toothbrush manufacturer has looked at their entire business model, putting sustainability at the heart of their production processes. Using materials known as bioplastics, they are now producing a toothbrush with the handle made from sugar cane and the bristles from castor oil. The head and handle still need to be separated before disposal but the handle can be recycled.

But is recycling plastic the answer? It still means this material is being produced, which is not particularly sustainable in itself, the amount of oil that goes into making plastic is horrendous). 

Perhaps the answer is to reduce the amount of plastic produced and, as consumers, we can make a stand by reducing the products we purchase that contain plastic. 

The BDA has been taking a leadership role in sustainability in dentistry too, and is looking at ways to support both high-level policies on sustainability to influence the agenda, and there are some free tools for dental practices to help reduce their carbon footprint.

We have a massive task ahead, but if we all take this issue seriously, I think we can help enable real change – I urge you to think about your usage of plastic in both your everyday life and at work, and see what changes you can make now. 

We’d love to hear about ways dental practices are making a difference, if you are doing the challenge this month, please do let us know how you get on. 

Peter Dyer, Chair
Central Committee for Hospital Dental Services

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