Plastics in dentistry – oral health shouldn’t cost the Earth

David Arnold on environmental issues such as the use of plastics in dentistry

David Arnold highlights some of the environmental challenges that plastics pose for the dental sector and what can be done about them.

In the UK, around 256 million toothbrushes are bought and discarded every year. That is an excessively big pile of plastic in exchange for taking care of our dental health. When combined with other single use oral care products, along with unavoidable items in dental practices, oral care has a deep-rooted problem with plastics. 

There are, however, some innovative and emerging ways to help reduce the amount of plastic that we use every year. During National Smile Month, we have been looking at the oral care products that could be sourced in a more environmentally friendly way. 

The right plastics

Plastics are a key material in toothbrushes for many reasons. They are flexible for moulding, easy to keep clean and have good durability. Despite this, manufacturing, transportation, and disposability are all well-known issues that can have damaging effects on the environment. That is why we must rethink our approach to plastics. 

One of the most common and useful types of plastic is recycled plastic. However, it is not always ideal for oral health products. This is because it may contain hazardous materials that cannot come into contact with the mouth. 

Because of this, it is unlikely that recycled plastics in their current form can make their way into our toothbrushes… That said, they often make for great packaging choices!

Oral health is currently embracing an exciting shift in the use of renewable plastics, like bio-based plastic. These are often made from castor oil plants or sugar cane. This is a positive move. It takes us away from fossil-based plastics and helps create a smaller carbon footprint. 

Companies like Tepe are continuously looking for sustainable sourcing solutions, such as sugar cane, which has a near-negligible footprint. Tepe is a fitting example of an oral care company choosing the right types of plastic.

There are also more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic brushes entering the market, such as bamboo toothbrushes. Bamboo is the world’s fastest-growing renewable resource, which is also completely biodegradable.

Looking away from toothbrushes, oral care has traditionally had another problem, in the form of toothpaste tubes. Traditionally non-recyclable, we are now seeing far more tubes that can be recycled – a very welcome step forward. 

More manufacturers are also turning to renewable energy for their products, which means no emissions are released during the manufacturing process.

Carbon neutrality 

Tackling climate change and the impact that comes with global warming is a challenge that all of us must take seriously. Carbon emissions contribute to climate change and cause shrinking water supplies, increasing incidence of severe weather and changes to the food supply.

One of the most important steps here is to lower our carbon emissions and become more fossil-free in our energy use.

It is important that everyone within the dental sector is committed to achieving the UN goals of climate change. Manufacturers in particular must take on the challenge to reach for carbon neutrality in products and packaging.

Becoming carbon neutral requires vast changes in how organisations work. While these are being forged, it is important that manufacturers look more closely at extending the life of their products.

Improving sustainability and prolonging the lifespan of oral care products is crucial if we are going to turn the tide on the environmental impact of plastics. It also creates less waste.

Reusing plastics

The responsibility for extending the life of a toothbrush does not lie solely with oral care companies – individuals and families can also make a difference.

Our findings show that four in five (80%) of us use our old toothbrush for an alternative purpose, which is great for the environment.

Scrubbing bathroom tiles is the most popular use (40%). Not surprisingly, cleaning is the most common theme. Almost a third (28%) of us use our past toothbrushes to assist in cleaning various kitchen appliances, more than a quarter (26%) to give an extra glimmer to our jewellery and one in five (18%) use the oral hygiene product to shine our shoes.

Other popular uses include cleaning bike and car wheels, computer keyboards, toilets and toilets seats, fish tanks and fingernails. A clean sweep all round!

A toothbrush can perform many functions around the home after its time cleaning teeth and gums is over. Most toothbrushes now have end-rounded, nylon bristles, which have been preferable to natural bristles for some time due to better quality and size control. 

The grip of the handle is another factor that makes the toothbrush a formidable cleaning tool. Unlike scouring pads, which can be tricky to grip, particularly when wet, the toothbrush’s handle should be comfortable to hold.

Being better at reusing our old plastics is an easy and effortless way to extend the lifespan of our old toothbrushes and be a bit more environmentally friendly. 

Another reason to smile

So, there we have it – a brief insight into oral health and environmental challenges. 

Packaging, transportation and manufacturing methods of products, as well as the materials used and their lifespan, all impact the sustainability of our dental products. Improving these factors feeds into a bigger picture and gives us all another reason to smile.

Our goal is simple: to live in a clean world where people are free of dental disease. A healthy planet shouldn’t need to be sacrificed for a healthy smile. 

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