Changing the world, one toothbrush at a time

That “free” toothbrush at my dentist’s office actually costs a lot

I had a dentist’s appointment today, one of those ones where the hygienist scrapes away the plaque on your teeth while asking you questions about your kids’ summer plans you literally can’t answer, then tells you to floss better. You know, the usual.

Except at this particular visit, I did something a little unusual. When my hygienist asked if I’d like a new toothbrush, I took a deep breath and said, “No, thank you. I’m switching to a biodegradable brush.”

And the world shifted on its axis.

Except, of course, it didn’t. But maybe mine did a little bit.

Look, I like free stuff as much as the next parent on a budget. I haven’t bought a toothbrush since ever: I’ve been privileged enough have dental coverage my entire life, and an additional perk of that coverage was the ritual of being handed a fresh new toothbrush, like a loot bag, at the end of each appointment. Sometimes, I could even pick the colour.

But stories about plastic — in particular, the ways in which single-use, throw-away plastic items have been cluttering our landfills and waterways — have been populating my news feed for months. And toothbrushes (like plastic drinking straws, or plastic-based cotton swabs) are a prime example of the scourge. Our dentists tell us to switch to a new toothbrush every three months. Even if you’re a slacker like me and stretch it to four, that still means chucking three hard plastic items into the trash each year, never to biodegrade. That might not seem like much, but multiply three by 37 million Canadians and that’s 111 million toothbrushes thrown into landfill each year. Approximately a billion brushes are thrown away in the United States annually — that’s 50 million pounds of waste. Roughly 3.5 billion brushes are sold worldwide each year — they all have to go somewhere, and that somewhere is usually landfill. It’s staggering to comprehend.

But we can change it. There’s no shortage of environmentally friendly (or friendlier) toothbrush options out there. I did my own research, and I’m going with one made from bamboo. The bristles themselves aren’t biodegradable, but you cut them off once the brush is worn out, then plant the handle in the ground to decompose. Like a little toothbrush garden. Or graveyard. Take your pick.
The brushes aren’t free. They’re hardly even cheap: they cost between $4 and $6 a pop, depending on how many I buy at once and whether I can find them locally. I’ll admit it stings to pay for something I could get for free at my dentist’s office. There’s also something about switching to bamboo that feels a bit precious: am I turning into (or likely, was I already?) one of “those people” — you know, the kind who worry about the provenance of their toothbrushes while there are so many other, arguably more important, problems (like our lack of access to universal dental care) to solve? Cue the eye rolling.
Except. Except that it’s not just one toothbrush, or three. It’s billions of them. What if everyone switched to more sustainable dental care? Imagine the mountains of toothbrushes we could divert from landfill. One of the best ways to make that happen is for privileged people like me — who have dental care, and at least some choice over the products we consume — to vote with our wallets, to increase demand for environmentally friendly products so that they become more accessible for all. Imagine the difference we would make if we all switched to plastic-free toothbrushes? If we collectively asked our dentists and hygienists to make the switch as well?

We really would change the world.

SUSAN GOLDBERG is a writer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the New York TimesMs.Toronto LifeLilith, Today’s ParentFull Grown People, and Stealing Time magazinesand several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families.

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