Today (22 April) is World Earth Day – a day dedicated to both simple individual acts and larger organisational initiatives that reduce carbon emissions and support sustainability, in order to protect the environment and our planet.
At the British Dental Health Foundation we are fully in support of green activity, from the way in which we operate as a charity and business to the messages and campaigns we run.
When you think about how we care for our mouths, it might be easy to think that there is little in common between our oral health and the environment – but that is not quite true. In addition to turning off the tap when brushing, which saves us 12 litres of water every time we brush, there is something else that a surprising number of us do.
They form a part of our daily routine. Twice a day, morning and night, for two minutes, they help clean our teeth and keep our mouths fit and healthy. Despite this, the shelf-life of a toothbrush is a relatively short one – in theory we should only use each one 180 times and for a total of just 6 hours over a period of three months.
So just what happens to them after their short but useful lives hanging around the bathroom sink, when the bristles are worn down and they have fulfilled their primary purpose? To uncover some of these answers we have unearthed some of the inventive, unusual and more bizarre uses for our old toothbrushes.
Our findings have shown that more than four in every five of us use our old toothbrush for an alternative purpose, which is great for the environment, but what were these?
The survey revealed that scrubbing bathroom tiles was the top use for an old toothbrush, with four out of every ten, making it by far the most popular activity. In fact, cleaning – not surprisingly – was found to be a common theme. Almost a third (28 percent) of us use our past toothbrushes to assist in cleaning various kitchen appliances, more than a quarter (26 per cent) to give an extra glimmer to our jewellery and roughly one in every five (18 per cent) use the oral hygiene product to shine our shoes.
Other answers included cleaning bikes, computer keyboards, toilets and toilets seats, fish tanks and finger nails. A clean sweep all-round!
A toothbrush is able to perform many functions around the home after it’s time cleaning teeth and gums are over. More and more toothbrushes now have ‘end-rounded’, nylon bristles, which have been preferable to natural bristles for some time due to better quality and size control. Again, this is ideal for any cleaning use as the composition slightly changes when wet to make the brush potentially cleaner – so it will not pick up any dirt from one area to simply spread it to another. Combing eyebrows, dusting archaeological artefacts, children’s painting and other various art projects also featured in what people do with an old toothbrush, while more cleaning alternatives included taps and plugholes, tools, silverware, car batteries and wheels, football boots and bird cages. Results from our study found that the age of the owner plays a significant part in what happens to a toothbrush after it is too old to care for the teeth and gums. Those of us over 75 are three times more likely to re-use our toothbrush for a different purpose than those between the ages of 16 and 34 and twice more likely than those between 35 and 44. Additionally, women are a third more likely to re-use their toothbrush for chores and other uses than their male counterparts. These findings are far from surprising, however, as the design and composition of a toothbrush makes for a natural cleaning tool. Old toothbrushes are often the ideal size to fit into those awkward cracks and crevasses that other cleaning devices simply cannot. They are compact and tough to help stain removal while the long nimble bristles can effectively clean ridged objects, such as skirting boards or help to shake off dust from delicate ornaments – the perfect little work mate.
The grip of the handle is another factor which makes the toothbrush a formidable cleaning tool. Unlike scouring pads, or something of a similar ilk, which can be tricky to get a hold of, particularly when wet, the toothbrush’s handle should be comfortable to hold, with some kind of grip facility. Additionally, and we think this is why most of us choose to use our old toothbrushes for chores such as cleaning bathroom tiles, is that the bristle when wet and applied with pressure are flattened. This means it, again unlike a scouring pad, will not scratch your tiles, or rub off any grouting.
However, from one ingenious idea often comes an utterly bizarre one, and there were plenty of those. From women who admit to using an old toothbrush to apply hair dye to those who use the brush as a hair chopstick and men who choose to use it to clean the dog’s teeth or give the golf clubs a sharp polish.
There were also many of us that oddly admitted to collecting toothbrushes. It may have some way to go as a pastime to overtake more traditional collectable items like stamps or marbles, though the evolution the toothbrush has undergone it could claim to warrant such an activity. In fact, one museum in Hertford holds a collection of 6,000-strong toothbrushes – the largest in the country which dates from the 18th to the late 20th century.
Although at some point, most of us re-use our old toothbrush for odd-jobs, we found that more than half of us (59 per cent) eventually end up throwing them away. Over the course of a typical lifetime we should get through over 300 tootbrushes each so that’s a significant number of toothbrushes simply disappearing into the dustbin. Men appear to be the worst serial offenders. Almost two thirds of men admit to throwing their old toothbrushes out, as do three quarters of those aged between 16 and 34, compared to just over half of 45 to 54 year olds and only one third of those over 75.
Results also discovered that a mere one in 20 of us, that’s five per cent, go to the extra mile to recycle our toothbrushes.
With World Earth Day, we want our findings to have an impact on our mindset and how we go about discarding our old toothbrushes.
Try not to toss out old toothbrushes and let’s all be a bit more environmentally friendly. Britain’s recycling efforts have hugely improved over the last decade, going from one of the worst recyclers in Europe to one of the best, so why so few toothbrushes been recycled?
We can only assume many of us are unaware that an old toothbrush can be recycled. If in doubt, just check the packaging before purchase, it should say whether or not it’s suitable or not for recycling. We should be going through an average of four toothbrushes a year, it’s tough to imagine how many of them are being discarded or actually sent to the nearby landfill.
Most manual brushes should have recyclable plastics, while electric power brushes are covered under Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations and can be recycled at the local tip in the bins marked ‘WEEE’ – although, this will not include the replacement heads. Some manufacturers are beginning to make toothbrush handles from this recyclable plastic which is great to see, so don’t let old toothbrushes simply go to waste. Reuse them and then recycle, as the UK’s leading oral health charity, we feel we should be at the forefront of actively promoting the responsibility of recycling old toothbrushes and we are wholly committed to doing so.