One billion toothbrushes: Practicing sustainability in the clinic

This year’s Council on Professional Issues is proud to host a three-part blog series on clinic, personal and environmental sustainability, as we celebrate October as Campus Sustainability Month. We encourage dental students everywhere to consider their long-term impact in both personal and professional spaces.

Dentistry holds unique challenges when it comes to eco-friendly operations, due to constant biohazard and contamination risks. This is especially true in schools across the nation, where plastic barriers, dental suction tips and countless single-use plastics must be disposed of between patients in close contact. Given our practice reality, the Council on Professional Issues has created a printable PDF flier to help spark ideas for clinic sustainability in dental schools.

Another key resource to consider is TerraCycle, a clean waste management company working with Colgate’s Oral Care Recycling Program to collect hard-to-recycle items such as toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and floss containers. The items are then sanitized and processed into base materials for new, upcycled products. Rodrick Wiggins (Tufts ’22) leads as an example of an individual working to bring sustainable change to his school clinic. Here, he writes about his experience.

One billion is a large number. It’s almost unfathomable to envision what one billion of anything looks like. Rest assured, this number can manifest itself in many ways. One unfortunate truth is that one billion toothbrushes are thrown away annually, finding themselves in our landfills, on the beaches of Central America, in forests of West Africa. They’re everywhere and they come in droves, enough to wrap around the world four times. Why is that bad? How did we get here? Why should we care?

The answers are simple. There is no planet B. Granted, that is an ambiguous point of view. To have a better idea of how we got here, we have to know where we started.

The use of plastic increased in popularity in the early 20th century, making its way into consumerism and manufacturing to stay forever. According to a June 7, 2019, National Geographic article, plastic production increased from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015 — and that’s expected to double by 2050. The material is, essentially, indestructible, fossilizing itself in time unless deliberately destroyed. This makes the idea of a plastic clean-up seem inconceivable.

There’s also the make-up of the toothbrush to consider. The modern toothbrush dates back to the late 1930s, with the fundamental design comprised mostly of a synthetic “celluloid” material and nylon bristles. Although today’s toothbrushes are similar to their original design, its components have been infiltrated with a cheaper and more volatile combination of plastic substitutes, making it more difficult to properly discard. Because of the materials a toothbrush is comprised of, it is presumed that a lot of toothbrushes are living on as trash. Toothbrushes, along with their inanimate plastic associates — toothpaste tubes and floss containers — will infiltrate our ecosystems, continuing to contribute to what would be an insurmountable problem if not recognized and addressed.

As a rising third-year dental student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, I find myself consumed by information, deadlines and a looming anxiety of when my next exam will be. Alongside those tribulations is a call-to-action and an obligation that I, and my fellow health care providers, have vowed to uphold: “[I] remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body, as well as the infirm.” Although we endure a tremendous responsibility, it is our duty to remain attentive and steadfast in our efforts. I took to the exhortation and wanted to expand my reach as early as I could.

The culmination of our efforts toward prevention of oral disease captivated me throughout my classes and daily life. One billion toothbrushes … every year … for decades! I had to do something.

I started to research environmental sustainability. I asked myself questions such as: What are toothbrushes made of? Could they be recycled? If so, how? I found my answer in a company called TerraCycle. TerraCycle recycles and upcycles “hard-to-recycle” products into items that are reusable. They partner with brands, manufacturers and retailers to form recycling programs, in which anybody can participate. Each company has their own recycling program collecting certain items.

For example, Colgate partners with TerraCycle to collect oral care products such as toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and floss containers. Participants who collect and send in the waste to be recycled and upcycled are offered incentives and rewards such as upcycled bins, backpacks or other school supplies. TerraCycle will also contribute to non-profits.

It was clear that my vision aligned with TerraCycle’s model, and they were ecstatic to take me and Tufts on as a new team to contribute to the Colgate Oral Care Recycling Program. The program allows us to collect toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, floss containers and all their outer packaging. In return for what we collect and send in to TerraCycle, Tufts will receive a monetary amount that we will allocate toward the Tufts Impact Fund, dedicated to helping patients who can’t afford essential care on their own. This not only allows us to combat the environmental effects dental waste has on our ecosystems, but it also allows us to provide unique access to oral health care for those who are underserved due to unfortunate circumstances.

The program currently is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, before the halt of operations, we launched our pilot of the program. This was designed to gain a better understanding of the challenges associated with collecting and processing logistics, ideal collection locations, as well as standards that need to be upheld to further ensure the highest level of professionalism.

The current model has two bins per clinic floor, located in easily accessible areas with high foot traffic. As we conduct this pilot, we are finding unique ways to educate and incentivize the efforts of our patients and student providers. We are sharing techniques with the student providers that encourage patients to bring in their used oral care products to be recycled. In return, they will receive a new toothbrush, small toothpaste and floss. In addition, we are hoping to shed light on the environmental effects that our profession causes and our efforts to change that tide. I am hopeful this will bring attention to the dental community and force us to be more cognizant of and proactive against our effects on the environment.

The Colgate Oral Care Recycling Program is being facilitated through a brand I created called Teeth Studios: A Smiling Initiative. It is a multifaceted platform that allows for conceptualizing of passions, groundbreaking ideas, aspirations, inspirations and vocations to be explored and brought to life to cultivate transformational and sustainable change. This recycling project is only the beginning of what I believe Teeth Studios will provide as an all-encompassing experience for patients, providers and bystanders alike. My mission is to motivate and educate, so we can collectively move forward into a brighter and greener future.

~Rodrick Wiggins, Tufts ’22

Download the “Promoting clinic sustainability” flier.

Rodrick Wiggins

Rodrick Wiggins, a Cleveland, Ohio, native, has a background in dental materials research and serves on the executive board for Tufts’ Global Health Student Association.

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