Reduce: Toothbrush Waste

Am I an eco-freak or is thinking about environmentally friendly dental hygiene a normal trait amongst the eco-conscious?

Thank you, I thought it was normal. (No comments from the peanut gallery.)

Alright, for those of you less eco-freak normal than me, here’s why you should be thinking about the environmental impact of toothbrushes. Let’s take Australia as an example.

There are about 22 million people in the country. Let’s say, as a very rough estimate, that 1.25 million are little babies and don’t have teeth. So that’s 20.75 million Australians 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, so we probably only change them every four months. So let’s say everyone changes their toothbrush three times a year (every four months).

Here’s the equation:

  • Australian population with teeth  x number of toothbrushes used per person per year  = number of toothbrushes used in Australia per year

…which equates to:

  • 20,750,000  x= 62,250,000

Yes, you read that right. By my very rough estimate, Australians are using 62 and a quarter million toothbrushes per year. (Some estimates say 30 million, but I’m going to presume Australians care about their dental hygiene more than that.) To boggle your brain a little more, keep in mind that Australia has a small population. Think of how many toothbrushes the US, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and Indonesians are using. Yikes!

These toothbrushes are made of plastic (the handles) and nylon (the bristles), plus they come in that dodgy plastic packaging – one of those single-use, disposable consumer items The Story of Stuff claims make up the vast proportion of our purchases.

Remember, no plastic is boidegradable. Photodegradable, sure (that means, broken down by sunlight into tiny pieces) – but it’s still there, being ingested by ever smaller organisms – entering and messing with our food chain from the very lowest level. All plastic rubbish goes into landfill or one of the ocean garbage patches (there are five – even though you may have only heard of the largest one in the North Pacific).

So what can we do about it?

Well, Mr Teeny-bop and I are trialling the Environmental Toothbrush and we are very excited! (Yankee Elv will get one too when her current toothbrush wears out.)

I found the wooden toothbrushes at Flannery’s for $2.95 each, which is very comparable with standard plastic toothbrushes (actually less than some). They are made of sustainably-produced bamboo (the handle) and a biodegradable polymer (the bristles) and will apparently compost completely in your home compost heap or bin. The packaging is cardboard and paper, which can be composted or recycled.

The one environmental downside is that they are manufactured in China (although this would be an upside if you lived in China, so I guess it all depends on your perspective). Regardless, every other toothbrush I’ve been able to find on the shelves is also made in China, so it’s not like they’re any worse than what we’ve been buying anyway, in terms of travel miles. My findings on manufacturing locations are backed up by an Australian Low Impact blog.

As far as the efficacy goes, I think they are great! The bristles are soft, which is my preference anyway, but these are a bit softer than I’ve been able to find otherwise, so I’m very impressd with that.

The handle is comfortable and the head is small, which works for me as I have a small mouth. Sometimes I find toothbrushes are a bit big to fit comfortably between my top and bottom teeth and I have to really open wide to brush my back molars. This toothbrush doesn’t require that, which is great.

Also, my front teeth curve a little bit and it can be difficult to clean the back of them, but the small head and soft, bendy bristles make cleaning a breeze. I think I actually like the way this brush works better than any other I’ve used. So it’s a win for me!

Mr Teeny-bop also reports that is it very comfortable. He likes that it’s not so ‘plasticky’ in his mouth and he also likes the smaller head and softer bristles. We are using coloured elastic bands (stolen from Yankee Elv’s old hair supplies) to tell the toothbrushes apart.

I am conscious that we will have to be careful to keep the toothbrushes dry. I think leaving them standing in a cup (our current method) is not going to be an effective way of keeping the ends from staying damp and potentially rotting. We’ll have to modify our toothbrush storage method, but I think that is a small price to pay.

So why don’t you give them a try? If you don’t live in Queensland and thus don’t have access to a Flannery’s shop, you can order the toothbrushes from the site, like the folks at My Green Australia are going to. Alternatively, try find your own locally produced environmentally-friendly toothbrushes, and spend your four minutes of toothbrushing per day congratulating yourself for diverting more plastic from landfills and oceans. Cos we all deserve some self-congratulation sometimes, right?

Remember to spread the word to your family and friends. These toothbrushes are not only good for the environment, they’re also good value and comfy to use!

P.S. These toothbrushes are also vegan. No boar bristles!



Spotlight: Natural Pest Control

Bugs are good. Really, they are. In compost, in nature, everywhere. It’s all cyclical, folks. Food web, circle of life – you know what I mean. However, they can be annoying, spread disease (think mosquitoes), painful, poisonous (think spiders), messy and generally a pain in the butt. I don’t think it’s an abnormal thing to not be particularly fond of them. However, I do think it’s not ideal to blitz them into oblivion with intensive pest control. It’s good to keep a balance. We spend so much time trying to avoid bugs in so many ways – how about some of the natural ways?

In the Elven household, we live in harmony with bugs by:

  • Sharing our house with geckos (they eat lots of bugs, but sadly our most common geckos are non-natives – even so, Yankee Elv loves them)
  • Letting lots of spiders live in our yard – mostly golden orb weavers (but not in the house, not in the house!)
A female golden orb weaver spider living outside our kitchen window.

A female golden orb weaver spider living outside our kitchen window. She moved along herself before we had to move her - she was preventing us from opening the window - but now she's back with her cronies over the front flower bed.

  • Stopping the cats from terrorising the local lizards, including blue-tongue lizards (they also eat lots of bugs)
blue tongue lizard showing tongue

A very pissy adolescent blue-tongue lizard bravely showing us his big, scary tongue. Pou had been trying to toy with him, but he was having none of it! We rehomed him under a bush.

  • Keeping all the windows open without screens during the day (only some of our windows are screened, so if we screen those that are and still keep the screenless windows open, bugs come in but can’t get out again – if you keep them all unscreened, they fly in one window and out the other)
  • Shutting all screenless windows and closing the screens on all screened windows at dusk (keeps out the mozzies, moths and Christmas beetles)
  • Keeping the interior lights off unless you’re using them (bugs are attracted to light)
  • Wiping kitchen benches meticulously after food preparation and rinsing all dishes after eating to keep off the ants (I’m still working on this one with Mr Teeny-bop)
  • Keeping all food in sealed containers or jars to remove temptation for the ants
  • Avoiding leaving still water lying around (mosquito breeding ground)
  • Keeping the lid on the garbage bin and kitchen compost containers to discourage flies
  • Using a cat food bowl with a moat to prevent ant swarms
  • Keeping pet food in sealed containers in the cupboard to prevent ants from gorging.

Our one concession to ‘unnatural’ pest control is flea treatment for the dog and cats – they are miserable without it.

This seems to mostly do the trick (although these darned red ants keep coming and trying to live in my bamboo plant). We really don’t have a bug problem – if you don’t count the critters in the compost, and the cicadas that are loud enough for even Yankee Elv to hear!

Do you have any other natural pest control tips?

blue tongue lizard, mouth shut

Blue-tongue lizards are quite cute when they stop hissing and poking out their tongues. This guy is still pretty mad though - he is all puffed up and flattened out.

[As an interesting aside, golden orb weaver webs are currently being studied in the hopes that something similar can be used in medicine to make things like sutures. The golden webs are so strong and flexible they are able to entangle small birds, although the spiders are not bird-eaters. At the moment, we have a golden orb weaver’s web holding up a tendril of the passionfruit vine.]

A passionfruit vine tendril held up by the web of a golden orb weaver spider.

A passionfruit vine tendril held up by the web of a golden orb weaver spider.

golden orb weaver - side view

Look closely and you can see the golden web!



Composting Revisited

Well, I haven’t done anything with the compost yet, but I am planning on investigating it tomorrow. I asked around on one of the Livejournal communities I lurk on and found out:

  • The grubs are black soldier fly larvae, which apparently are very good for compost (some people use them purposefully for composting)
  • The spiders look like brown house spiders/cupboard spiders – related to redbacks but non-poisonous (except this site says they can be venomous!)
  • My compost may be too dry, too wet, not hot enough or not including enough brown matter, which would have created prime conditions for the larvae
  • The spiders are likely there to eat the larvae (which I’m not convinced of – those grubs are bigger than the spiders, quite a lot bigger).

I have options as to what I can do:

  • Turn out the compost onto the ground somewhere and let the birds make short work of the grubs and spiders
  • Leave the lid on and start a new compost pile outside – in about a year the compost in the bin should be fantastic and the bugs will be gone
  • Pour boiling water in the bin and kill all the critters, then continue with the composting
  • Leave the critters in there cos they’re super awesome for composting
  • Turn the compost thoroughly and try to get the balance better for composting without so many grubs (potentially burying food scraps in the middle of the bin to increase the heat as they decompose, which will keep the bug population in balance better)
  • Cover the compost in 2 to 4 inches of brown matter to discourage the bugs, which will, hopefully, discourage the spiders in turn.

I’m not sure which one I’m going to do yet. Suggestions? I like the idea of the birds going to town, but I am not keen to scoop everything out of there and spread it around on my lawn. The bin is under the house, so I can’t just leave the lid off and let the birds come to it – they can’t get to the bin. My gut is boiling water cos those grubs and spiders really kinda creep me out, but if they’re actually good for the compost, then maybe that’s not a good idea either! Maybe trying to work with the balance of the compost to at least keep the population down is the best idea…

I’m also a little scared of opening the bin and having a swarm of black soldier flies come out, even if they don’t bite or anything. I still don’t want them all in my face.

I’ve got to decide something soon; I have food scraps piling up…

P.S. Thanks to everyone who helped me over on Livejournal!



Compost Alert!

This morning I went down to empty the weekly compost (from the ice-cream containers that sit in our kitchen) into the compost bin (which you can see here). The compost has been going for a few months now, no troubles, and I was thinking it might be nearly time to turn it.


After I finished clearing away the spider webs around the general under-the-house walls/ceiling area with the end of the rake, I lifted the lid of the compost to find a bunch of these gross little grub things. They were all through the compost, like everywhere. They were not there last week. Sure, there were a few grubby looking things, but they were black or brown and they were not in these prolific numbers – I thought they looked like they were being helpful, so I left them. These new grub things kind of reminded me of a big pile of maggots, except they’re bigger, not quite so white and if you look really closely, they had something that was like little hairs on them.


Pile of wiggly grubs in my compost - are these supposed to be there?

Then I stopped looking too closely, because I realised there were a bunch of spiders all around the rim of the compost bin… spiders that looked a lot like redbacks. Now, my great-great-grandmother died from a redback spider bite, and I’d like to not add to the family history in that way. Not to mention, I’m a bit arachnophobic. Nothing severe, but I am the squealy, shrieky, stand-on-top-of-the-toilet-while-someone-chases-the-spider-outside kind of person. It doesn’t really go with my pseudo-tough genderqueer image, but there you have it. Spiders make me shudder.

compost bin spiders

Spiders around the rim of my compost bin. Little males and big mama! These kind of look like redbacks.

I felt very brave in going to get a camera to document the grubs and spiders, so someone can help me identify them and decide whether the compost is salvageable and if not, whether I can get rid of it myself or whether I need pest control. I ain’t messing with redbacks (or red house spiders or common house spiders or whatever they are… my google -fu is failing me in identification of the spiders, even though I forced myself to look at all these pictures of hairy, gross spiders).

compost bin spiders

A close-up image of the big mama and some little guys. The black thing at the bottom is a dead bug in their web, so don't worry about that. You can see the mama at the top has a huge abdomen, nearly the size of a pea. The males are considerably smaller. I think there might have been some smaller females too - they were kind of in-between sized. I looked at the mama to check the colour - she had a red-brown thorax and legs, but her abdomen was almost black. Where I would expect the red stripe to be though, there were white spots. I didn't look underneath her to see if she had the characteristic hourglass shape on her belly! My gut says atypically-coloured redbacks.

Here’s a video of the grubs and spiders. The video really helps you get an idea of the wiggly feralness of the grubs, but the spiders aren’t brilliantly in focus (I just used my still camera and it doesn’t allow me to re-focus in the middle of a recording). I have included some pictures (above, with descriptions), which also aren’t great, because the compost bin isn’t in the most well-lit position. My first instinct when I saw them was ‘redback!’, so I try to trust my gut.

So what should I do??

[EDIT next day: Jump to this post if you want to read what I have since learned about my creepy, crawly compost.]



Spotlight: Composting

So it’s taken me a good long while, but I finally have our compost bin up and running! I used this post on You Grow Girl to guide me, but I didn’t add quite as much to the bin as I want to keep using it as I go along, not fill it up right away.

You could buy a special composter, but I decided to use a big, old, concrete laundry tub as my compost bin. It has three sections, so it will be easy to turn the compost from one section to another as required. I put a bit of gutter guard we had lying around over the drain holes to stop them getting clogged.

The compost bin is an old concrete laundry tub.

The compost bin is an old concrete laundry tub.

First I put in a layer of ripped newspaper (darned free papers they keep dropping off in spite of our No Junk Mail sign).

First, a layer of paper...

First, a layer of paper...

Then I put in a layer of browns – mostly dead leaves, sticks, dead camelias and crusty old passionfruits and grapefruits that have been rotting on the ground. I can add to this with old pasta, pet hair, paper and other dead bits and pieces from the garden.

Then, a layer of browns...

Then, a layer of browns...

Next came a layer of greens – weeds, passionfruit leaves and frangipanis. I’ll be adding to this with grass cuttings I don’t use to mulch the garden, tea bags and food scraps.

Next, a layer of greens...

Next, a layer of greens...

Finally, I wet the compost. It’s supposed to be as wet as a wrung-out sponge, so I think I overdid it a little bit.

Finally I wet the compost!

Finally I wet the compost!

Luckily the tubs have drain holes from when they acted as sinks, so the compost won’t stay too wet. I added ice-cream containers underneath to catch any drips (with bricks in the containers to weigh them down).

Too much water - luckily there are drainage holes!

Too much water - luckily there are drainage holes!

Yankee Elv got me a big piece of wood from Reverse Garbage to work as a lid, and I’ve used bricks to weigh it down so no animals get in. I can’t imagine they would anyway – the bin is in the fenced area under the house so nothing bigger than a possum could get in there.

Yankee Elv got me a lid, and we already had the bricks.

Yankee Elv got me a lid, and we already had the bricks.

Now I can divert the majority of our kitchen rubbish into the compost bin! I’m very pleased about it, especially when you consider articles like this one indicate that people in the US waste 28% of their food (I imagine Australian stats are similar). I hope I don’t waste that much, but whatever I do waste will at least no longer be going to landfill. Have a look at this video if you wanna learn more.

I’ll be using these two posts to guide me on what I can add to the bin:

In several months, I should have some compost to put in my garden (or give to Mum as a gift, just in time for mother’s day). Now all I have to do is control myself enough to not go fiddle with it everyday just to see how it’s doing!