Greed, stupidity and toothbrushes

When you’re done using a toothbrush, you just want to replace the bristles. However you have to throw the whole thing away and get a new toothbrush.

This is a terrible and obvious waste. Surely there’s a better way.

Yes, there is.

No, you can’t have it.

I researched a bit and there’s a few ideas out there:

  • Some allow you to replace the top half of the brush. Why half though? It’s only the head that needs replacement… It’s not as wasteful, but still not optimal.
  • Some add holes to the handle, to make it use less material. That’s a neat idea.
  • Some make the handle out of wood. It looks natural, but that’s much more expensive to produce than using plastic. Also, you can’t replace the head of those toothbrushes. In sum, we made the initial problem prettier and more expensive but we didn’t solve it.
  • There’s different concepts and failed attempts on Kickstarter, that look good on 3D renders, but none of them are commercially available anymore.

Why can’t we design an optimised toothbrush that is more sustainable and also cheaper to produce and sell? It’s not rocket science and everybody wins: the company, the consumer, the environment.

The current toothbrush

This is the current toothbrush, the one we’re using for decades:

  1. Handle is made of virgin plastic
  2. Packaging is a mix of paper and clear plastic
  3. After 3 months your throw it away
  4. You buy a new one, that will last another 3 months

The perfect toothbrush

Here’s the perfect toothbrush, that no one created yet:

  1. Handle is hollow and made of recycled plastic
    • (extra points if you use plastic collected from the oceans)
  2. Packaging is made of recycled paper
  3. After 3 months, you keep the handle and replace the head
  4. You buy a new pack of 20 heads, that will last you 5 years

That’s it. Simple.

We have the tech, it’s not a massive difference from the current processes and it’s so much better. These are the benefits of each step:

  1. Minimises resources used
  2. Minimises packaging waste
  3. Reuses an item (3 Rs)
  4. Minimises shipping costs

The dream

Look at these products, all from the same brand (not sponsored).

jordan toothbrushes, 3 different models, from cheaper to most expensive

On the left is, what I consider to be, the best toothbrush ever: it’s a pleasure to use, doesn’t slip even though it doesn’t uses rubber parts, it’s simple to produce, comes in a pack of more than one, the handle doesn’t get dirty after 3 months of use, and the bristles don’t hurt my gums.

It’s the best, but it’s not “the perfect” toothbrush.

Then I saw a version with a hollow handle. Closer, but not perfect yet. And then, there it was. A handle, plus 4 heads, in a humble cardboard packaging. I thought it was a miracle!

jordan toothbrushes, 3 different models, from cheaper to most expensive (with prices)

I compared the prices and calculated the unit price of each toothbrush.

The most wasteful product is the cheaper! WAT?! The sustainable and reusable toothbrush is 66% more expensive than the disposable toothbrush! I sweared in the supermarket. Actually it was a mirage!

The nightmare

How can you remove material (the company boasts about it, it’s the whole thing of that product) and still make the end product more expensive? It’s like “we can send you an email instead of a physical paper letter, but you have to pay extra”.

What I hate the most is this “ethical tax” concept. It’s when companies prey on your guilt, and make “the right choice” more expensive.

Toothbrushes are just an example, there’s plenty more – recycled paper being more expensive than virgin paper, or gilette heads being more expensive than disposable ones.

Buying the sustainable toothbrush is an emotional decision. Buying the cheaper one is the rational decision. We need to align both.

If we want to solve the sustainability issue of our generation, we must turn emotional decisions into rational decisions. If we wait for people to feel guilty and buy the costlier sustainable product, we will never solve the root issue.

The future

I’ll keep brushing my teeth with my jaw clenched, thinking about how unnecessarily messed up our world is. The difference is now I’ll be using the new handle with detachable heads. And paying extra for it. Company wins, environment wins, consumer loses.