Are bamboo toothbrushes as green as they claim to be?

Are bamboo toothbrushes as green as they claim to be?

How eco-friendly are bamboo toothbrushes really?

With an estimated one billion plastic toothbrushes thrown away each year in the US, the interest in bamboo toothbrushes as an alternative to plastic has grown. The question is: are bamboo toothbrushes eco-friendly? The answer: yes and no. 

There are over 1,000 types of bamboo. Bamboo is a sustainable crop, perhaps one of the most sustainable since bamboo regrows every three to five years due to a unique rhizome-dependent system compared to 20 years or more for other trees (bamboo is actually considered a grass).

Bamboo toothbrushes are recyclable. However, they are not as ecofriendly as advertised.  Although the handles are made of bamboo, the bristles are usually made of Nylon 4 or Nylon 6 which are not recyclable.  Nylon-6 never biodegrades. Nylon-4, claims to be biodegradable, but isn’t. More accurately it is biodegradable under the ‘right conditions’ which means it can biodegrade in artificially created laboratory conditions. The only recyclable bristles are made from animal hair.  While used as bristles for centuries, it may not be considered “cruelty free or vegan” as advertised. To recycle a bamboo brush, the bristles must be manually removed. It takes 4 to 6 months for a bamboo toothbrush to biodegrade by composting (assuming it is cut into small pieces) and 5 – 10 years to break down if buried. The majority of bamboo is grown and manufactured in China. If you live outside of Asia, there will be carbon emissions associated with transport. The high demand for bamboo has resulted in much of China’s land is being re-planted as bamboo (mono-plantations) thus changing the ecosystems. Mono-plantations can have a negative effect on local ecosystems by decreasing biodiversity, soil health, and water quality. A report showed that China cut down significant amounts of natural forests for bamboo production.

Bamboo toothbrushes aren’t the most sustainable option for oral hygiene, according to researchers at Trinity College Dublin and the Eastman Dental Institute at University College London. Their study was the first to perform a lifecycle assessment (LCA) to measure the environmental consequences of a healthcare product.

Bamboo brushes are an example of greenwashing: taking advantage of those looking for sustainable options with unsustainable items. Ironically, they seem to always arrive in plastic packaging! Bamboo brushes require more care than plastic brushes. Bamboo is an organic material; therefore, it encourages the growth of mold faster than a plastic toothbrush. Care must be taken to dry the brush after use. Finally, bamboo brushes are considered disposable, adding to the “throw away” society stigma.

The bamboo toothbrush industry uses all the popular buzz words (all-natural, no harsh preservatives or chemicals, no plastic, zero-waste, paraben-free, vegan friendly, cruelty-free, sulfate-free) in their advertising. However, the use of stylish and popular adjectives does not make the concept true. Instead, a better option may be to consider biodegradable plastics. The ideal toothbrush is one which uses recyclable plastics in a continuous process. Plastic brushes which can be recycled don’t take up a lot of land, and they don’t need lots of water to grow. We need a system where plastic toothbrushes can be collected like batteries and then recycled into new products.

In summary, bamboo toothbrushes may be more eco-friendly than plastic brushes assuming they are recycled correctly (a generous assumption) and the effects on the ecosystem, carbon emissions and plastic packaging are ignored. Most would agree that being more eco-friendly is the right goal for the planet.  As with all topics, I advocate investigating the whole issue and the facts rather than reliance on slick advertising and trendy hype as evidence of efficacy.


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