Our landfills are a graveyard for old, plastic toothbrushes. Last year, 495 million nonelectric toothbrushes were purchased in the U.S. They’re not recyclable, which means the vast majority get tossed or end up in the ocean.
Colgate, which sells 30% of the world’s toothbrushes, is trying to cut down on this waste. Today, it launches Keep, a redesigned manual toothbrush that contains 80% less plastic. At first glance it looks like a traditional toothbrush. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see that the handle is made from aluminum, designed to last a lifetime. The brush head, which is made from plastic, snaps onto the handle and is replaceable, though not recyclable.
The first toothbrushes hit the U.S. in the mid-1800s, made from wood and boar bristles. But in the 1930s, when plastic became widely available, brands started mass producing cheap, disposable brushes. When curbside recycling became mainstream 50 years ago, the toothbrush was excluded: The shape and mix of plastic used for toothbrushes means they can’t be processed by municipal recycling centers. Colgate has partnered with recycling platform TerraCycle to collect and recycle toothbrushes, but in the last decade has managed to recycle only 5 million, less than 1% of the brushes it manufactured during this period.
The convenience of plastic has come at an enormous cost to the planet: Some 9.1 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the material was first mass produced in the 1950s, and 91% of it isn’t recycled. The material doesn’t biodegrade, so it will remain in our environment for hundreds of years, breaking into tiny particles that can get swept into the ocean and end up in our food chain. Consumers are waking up to how problematic plastic is, and this growing aversion presents a threat to consumer goods conglomerates like Colgate’s parent company, Colgate-Palmolive, which continues to rely on plastic for the majority of its products.
Even if individuals wanted to lower their plastic footprint, there haven’t been many sustainable options for packaged goods. But over the past five years, startups have begun developing personal care products that don’t use as much plastic. By Humankind makes refillable deodorant, dental floss, and dissolvable mouthwash tablets. Bite makes compostable bamboo toothbrushes and toothpaste bits that foam up in your mouth. The Keep is most similar to a brush designed by startup Goodwell that hit the market in 2016, which also has a metal base and replaceable head, although its handle is made from recycled aluminum and its head is made from a biodegradable bioplastic. (Goodwell costs more than twice the price of Keep.) While these brands have found an audience of eco-friendly customers willing to change their behaviors, they make up a tiny fraction of the market.
Major companies have the potential to have a much bigger impact, and some are slowly beginning to roll out more sustainable products. Procter & Gamble, for instance, is designing cleaning products that require less water and plastic. Colgate, for its part, has committed to cutting its use of virgin plastics by a third by 2025.
Keep is one step toward this goal. But now, Colgate must convince customers to part with their current toothbrush. The brand’s strategy seems to be to make this brush feel as familiar as possible. For one thing, it’s priced similarly to traditional Colgate brushes, at $9.99 for a starter kit, which comes with two heads; refill kits cost $4.99 for two brush heads. When I tried the brush, it looked and felt identical to every other Colgate brush I’ve used. The aluminum base was light and I liked how solid it felt in my hand. It even comes with two different kinds of bristles—one for deep cleaning, and one for whitening. Swapping out the head is easy and refills are readily available at Target and Amazon.
But it remains to be seen if Colgate can convince consumers to make the switch. Research shows that it can be incredibly difficult to persuade consumers to change their behavior or switch brands, particularly when it comes to products they use every day. Still, it’s a promising step toward a world in which cleaning our teeth doesn’t dirty the planet.