Brushing Teeth – Sustainably


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As Diwali (India’s festival of lights) is approaching, most corporate houses are busy today planning about the gifts. Every year as a regular practice, these gifts are given to the staff, clients, and investors & of course to the government officers who matter. All look towards receiving the corporate gifts that typically include leather pouches, box of sweets, a thermos or a ceramic decorated plate

Given the buzz on “Sustainability” however, many corporate honchos such as Anand Mahindra, Kumarmangalam Birla, Cyrus Mistry of Tata and other such environmentally conscious industry leaders thought to select gifts that can bring in a difference and distinguish them from others. “The gifts should communicate sustainability on a day to day basis and lead to some impact or a measurable change” – they said.

This led to flocking of many environmental consultants to the procurement divisions of the corporate offices. Several propositions were made such as an eco-friendly Tee shirt made from the farms in Maikal, a table stationary set made out of waste from Dharavi, an organic jam or honey made by tribes in the hills of Matheran etc.  The choice was difficult to make as many provided reports on the life cycle analyses of their products which were hard to believe and were generally built on data not relevant to India.

My Professor friend was simply in demand because of his expertise, far sighted vision and reputation. He was approached by several corporates and personal calls were made by the Birlas, Tatas, Mahindras and Ambanis.  Everyone wanted the Professor to come up with some brilliant idea of a product that will show a great example of sustainability.

We met at our usual Coffee place and I asked Professor about what was in his mind to advice the industries on the Diwali gift

Well, I have to decide whom should I advise – as all these industry leaders are my good friends. But if I were to advice then, I will propose providing a pack of two tooth brushes as the Diwali gift

A tooth brush! – Are you crazy? I exclaimed. A tooth brush cannot be a Diwali gift. What’s the sustainability element in a tooth brush? In fact I suspect it may be reverse!!

Professor lit his cigar. “It’s not the usual tooth brush I am referring to. Its tooth brush made from Bamboo and with Nylon-4 as the bristle”

There are about 18 million people in Mumbai. Let’s say, as a very rough estimate, that 10% are little babies and very old people with no dentures and don’t have teeth. So that’s 16.2 million Mumbaikars with teeth (including dentures, which still need to be brushed, so they count.)

We all know the dentist tells us to change our toothbrush when it starts to get shaggy; about every three months. We also know that we are lazy, and not aware that timely changing the tooth brush matters. We probably only change a tooth brush once a year.

So every year, we should expect 16.2 million tooth brushes “bought and thrown” in Mumbai alone, buried in the landfills of the city.


These toothbrushes are made of plastic (the handles) and nylon (the bristles), plus they come in plastic packaging – one of those single-use, disposable consumer items. As with most plastics, polypropylene and nylon are sourced from non-renewable petroleum and their manufacture is resource-intensive and more importantly these materials are not biodegradable. Just one person can create four kilograms of waste from disposable toothbrushes during a lifetime that will remain in the environment for at least 500 years

I said – Agree that tooth brush is a serious issue. But what is the option then Professor?

Sustainably produced bamboo has the potential to be one part of the solution. Bamboo fiber can be used to completely replace the plastic used for toothbrush handles. Professor said.


I remembered the electric toothbrush. These brushes are often touted as more eco-friendly than disposable conventional tooth brushes because only the head needs to be replaced, which means less landfill.

The Professor had a counter argument

The materials used in rechargeable electric toothbrushes are similar, in fact with additional components including a plastic base, plug and power cord. The internal motor, which moves the bristle head, can contain nickel- and chromium-bearing alloys. Electric brushes are commonly powered by an internal rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel-cadmium (NiCa) battery. Both have environmental impacts over their lifespan. Research from Bath University, England, found that electric powered brushes use around 0.072kWh/day, equivalent to the energy use of a toaster. So electric tooth brush is no good an option!

An estimated 50 per cent of the total “ecological costs” of a manual plastic toothbrush, and 60 per cent of the lifetime energy requirements for an electric toothbrush, are incurred during the manufacture and distribution phases, compared to the usage and disposal phases.

In comparison, the handle of bamboo brushes are made from moso bamboo, a rapidly renewing plant which requires little water. This bamboo is farmed, not old growth bamboo, has natural antimicrobial properties and no pesticides are necessary for growing it. Moso Bamboo is sourced today largely from China and India has only recently started looking at Moso bamboo cultivation on a scale it deserves. A carbonization finishing process, which provides water resistance and prevents the growth of microbes on the toothbrush, is the only component of the ecological costs of using bamboo.

Professor continued.

The bristles of the bamboo brush are made from a nylon 4 blend. Bamboo brushes break down into compost, leaving no residue, including the nylon bristles. Japanese researchers have shown that nylon 4 breaks down in compost within four months, while nylon 6 does not that is used by the conventional tooth brush.

Packaging is also another consideration. Conventional manual toothbrushes, and replacement heads for electric toothbrushes, are generally packaged in a ‘blister pack’ of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and cardboard, while bamboo toothbrushes come in biodegradable paper box with a compostable in commercial facilities wrapper made of Polylactic Acid derived from corn. Being concerned about the issues in industrial corn production involving genetic manipulation, fertilizers and pesticides, some of the bamboo tooth brush makers are making the switch to a plant-based Cellulose wrapper that does not use corn.

By the way, only 50% of the Indian population is known to use modern oral care products and only 15% brush of teeth twice a day… And so the market is going to grow. It is estimated that 700 Million toothbrushes are sold every year in India. HLL and Colgate-Palmolive account of 70% of this market but they only make conventional manual tooth brushes and now the electric tooth brushes.

I asked Cyrus Mistry to speak to Harish Manwani of HLL and Nambier of Colgate- Palmolive and convince them to start manufacturing Bamboo brushes in India. And if they don’t show interest then I asked him take on manufacturing Bamboo tooth brush as a Tata product.

So this year, who will supply Bamboo tooth brush as a corporate gift in India? I asked.

Well, this year it will have to be sourced from China. Of course at the cost of added carbon emissions in the shipment. I only hope that Chinese don’t invade this market and will be too late for Indians to get in.

Hmm I said  – Interesting point of caution.

Professor extinguished his cigar and said

All those who will receive these tooth brushes as corporate gifts, will think of sustainability as the first thing in the morning when they start brushing their teeth. 

And hopefully with such a start in the morning, sustainability will be practiced down the day. This is where the impact of the corporate gift will come in

Bless you Professor– I said “wish that was so simple


Before the advent of the nylon bristle, our forefathers used to rely on nature. While the Indians were known to use Neem tree twigs (Datoon) the Chinese preferred the tough hair off the neck of a Siberian Boar!!! The Miswak sewak is the natural way people in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia have cleaned their teeth for centuries. The bark is peeled off the tip of the stick from Asian Arak or Peelu trees, olive or walnut trees and the end chewed to separate fibers to rub on the teeth. As the fibers wear, the tip is cut off and the end peeled and chewed. Miswak sticks get in between crevices in teeth, promote tooth remineralization and strengthen enamel, are antibacterial and prevent infections, and promote saliva and blood circulation as the sticks are chewed. They contain minerals, alkaloids, vitamin C and calcium.

Neem Sticks are the version of the Miswak sewak that residents of India have used for centuries and many still use today.


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  1. Thank you Prof Modak for your weekly knowledge-ful posts. This toothbrush thought is indeed innovative recalling indigenous knowledge. Thank you once again and Happy Dasera & Depawali!

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