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How the War in the 1930's Started the Plastic Toothbrush Crisis

Estimated Reading Time: 3mins


Have you ever wondered how we ended up with such a crisis? Today, we explore how a war contributed to the start of the plastic crisis specifically plastic toothbrushes. Around 3,000BC - Babylonians chewed on twigs to clean their teeth. It was only in the 17th-18th century, cattle bone toothbrushes. The first “toothbrush” (with bristles) was made of animal bone, bamboo and hog hair.


toothbrush made from bone a boar hair and plastic toothbrush nup
Oral care occupied the mind of the reigning Chinese emperor Hongzhi in the late 1400's which inspired him to design something that looked a lot like the brush we know today. It was a short, dense pack of boar bristles, shaved off the neck of a hog, set into a bone or wood handle. 


It wasn’t until WWII when synthetic toothbrushes made of nylon and other plastics were invented. This design remained unchanged for centuries. Cattle bone and boar hair were considered luxury items so until the 1920’s, it is estimated that one in four people in the United States owned a toothbrush. 


Why we started making plastic toothbrushes.  


War was a major driver of the mass production of plastic toothbrushes. By this time, polymer or plastic was invented and this made it possible to make moulds of anything and reproduce them at a much lower cost-including the toothbrush. 

Around the time of the American Civil War in the mid-1800s, guns were loaded one shot at a time, with powder and bullets that had been pre-wrapped in twists of heavy paper. Soldiers needed to tear the twists open with their teeth, but many potential fighters lacked even the six well-anchored opposing teeth to rip the paper apart. This made it a major variable in a life/death situation.

The U.S. military recognized that they had a problem, a variant on the cartridge-ripping issue from the Civil War. By the time of WW1,  it became a requirement for healthy young men for recruitment to have six healthy opposing teeth in order to eat the tough, dry military rations. Young man after young man failed that test due to poor teeth health.


By World War II, soldiers were instructed in the care and keeping of teeth; dentists were embedded in battalions and plastic toothbrushes were handed out to troops. And when the fighters came home, they brought their tooth-brushing habits with them.


Today, plastic has so fully infiltrated toothbrush design that it’s nearly impossible to clean our teeth without touching a polymer. And because plastic is essentially indestructible, that means nearly every single toothbrush made since the 1930's is still out there in the world somewhere, living on as a piece of trash.


old toothbrushes lines up in a beach talking to each other
Around 23 billion toothbrushes would get trashed annually in the US alone.  Most are traditional toothbrushes, but some 55 million U.S. brushers use electric toothbrushes each year, so some number of those plastic-handled, battery-containing objects also end up in the waste stream each year.

Luckily, today we have come a long way in terms of design and material availability. Modern machinery and sophisticated design allows us to avoid plastic toothbrushes and replace them with bamboo. Like the Nup Charcoal Bamboo Toothbrush, which prides itself in minimal design, using the least amount of material but offering the best, durable, beautiful version of non plastic toothbrush. 

Originally, boar hair was used to make the bristles until it was replaced with nylon fibers  made of plastic. Although a completely non plastic toothbrush would be ideal, the reality is by replacing the handle with compostable material, it’s already a huge step towards reducing your plastic ‘footprint’. Biodegradable or bio-based plastics aren’t always better for the planet than their more traditional plastic counterparts, either because they don’t actually break down particularly well or because they have complicated environmental footprints in their own right. 


A loooong way to go…


There is little we know at the moment on how to reverse the damage plastic pollution has done to our oceans and land, we do know how to reduce our plastic use going forward. Alternatives to plastic toothbrushes already exist. It's now about making the choice not to contribute to more plastic waste.

 

 

 

 


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A little bit overwhelmed by our plastic problem? Worried you aren’t doing enough about reducing your plastic or simply don’t know where to start?


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