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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!

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Spotlight: Sustainable Cork

Do you remember a time when all wine and champagne bottles had a cork stopper? I barely do – I was only just old enough to start drinking alcohol when plastic corks were introduced. Not long later, screw top lids came in. I thought these were both great ideas. I’m not great with a corkscrew. Inevitably, small bits of cork would end up in my wine. It’s not so hard to pick them out, but you know… it’s a pain. Especially if you’re on your third bottle. Not that I would drink that much…

So anyway, I tended to choose bottles with plastic corks, or better yet, screw-top lids.

I won’t be doing that anymore. Now it will be cork every time for me.

Why the sudden turnaround? Well, I was reading some Fake Plastic Fish articles yesterday, and found an old piece on cork. I followed the links and found a link to the Cork Oak Landscapes section of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) site. It includes an article and a beautiful video outlining why the cork industry is important. (There’s no spoken audio so it’s accessible for Deaf folks.)

This WWF news clip on Youtube paints a more detailed picture (sorry, no captions).

Essentially, plastic stoppers and screw-tops have reduced the demand for cork. As a result, some cork farmers are leaving the forests behind (moving to the cities to find work) or replacing them with non-indigenous tree plantations (like pine or eucalypt). This action is increasing susceptibility to desertification, fires and the extinction of native species (like the endangerd Iberian Lynx). Note that cork production in Mediterranean areas has been going on for millennia, so this is a pretty major change.

What amazes me the most about cork production though, is that it’s extremely sustainable. The trees don’t get cut down – which contradicted my (admittedly hazy) ideas about cork manufacture – but are in fact carefully looked after so they can continue to act as the livelihood for generations of the same family. To make cork, the bark is harvested. This bark then regrows and is harvested again. This is done with specially designed axes that don’t harm the trees. Cattle graze in the forest, keeping the grass low and reducing the risk of fire. Overall, it’s a natural, environmentally friendly way of life that we should be looking to preserve.

Instead, I’ve been unknowingly destroying it by choosing lids that are marginally easier to remove. Bad hippy. I know I didn’t do it on purpose, but I feel kind of guilty; I want to go buy copious amounts of corked wine to make up for it, but I won’t, because I just don’t drink that much. Instead, I’m posting here, in the hope of spreading the word.

So guys, listen up! Buy wine with real corks! Save the cork forests and the animals and this gentle way of life!

P.S. If you need a reason to buy cork that is closer to home than Portugal, how about not poisoning yourself with the petro-chemicals plastic stoppers are made of and screw-top lids are lined with? Give it a try.

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Moving the BP Oil Disaster

I got some serious news about my health recently. I’m still waiting on a definite diagnosis, but I probably have a degenerative disease with a likely outcome of paralysis or blindness. Fun stuff. Imagine Yankee Elv with her hearing dog and me with a guide and/or assistance dog. Won’t we make a pair? I’m hoping I’m one of the lucky ones who misses out on those symptoms, but there’s no way to know, there’s no cure and I haven’t responded well to treatment so far.

As you may imagine, this has had me a bit distracted. That’s partly why recently there have been lots of posts about happy, achievable things, like saving chickens and eating vegan food – I haven’t felt up to delving into the serious stuff. Plus, aside from eating healthily, exercising regularly and avoiding illness and tiredness, the best way to look after myself is to reduce stress. Just for a little while, reducing stress has included not keeping up with the really nasty environmental crap – like the disaster of the BP oil spill. It just didn’t seem like something I should stress about. So that’s why you haven’t seen anything from me about arguably the greatest single event of human-created ecological catastrophe in memory.

However, a friend of mine posted about this site on Facebook, and I thought it was too good not to share. It’s called IfItWasMyHome.com and it allows you to digitally move the oil spill around on a map. You think it’s bad in the Gulf of Mexico? Well, of course it is. But is it better or worse if it’s in a major city? What about if it was where you live? On this site, you can try it out.

I found it interesting because I lived on the Gulf Coast in Texas for a while. In reality, it’s getting close to places I’ve been, so I can picture what it’s doing.

BP oil spill

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The little red circle shows where I used to live.

I also moved the oil spill to Brisbane. It helps me understand, more tangibly, how big it actually is. It covers up the entire south east of Queensland region, including where I live now, where I grew up, where I go camping… everything. It’s huge.

oil spill if it was moved to brisbane

Here's what the oil spill would look like if it had happened in Brisbane.

Here it is in New York. The place where Yankee Elv grew up is covered in oil.

oil spill if it was moved to new york

Here's what the oil spill would look like if it had happened in New York.

Possibly the most shocking and frightening image came up when I moved the spill to Rome.

oil spill covering rome

Here's what the oil spill would look like if it had happened in Rome.

The width of the spill is greater than the width of the entire country of Italy. The BP oil disaster is bigger – significantly bigger – than a number of European countries. You can see them right there on the map. Get that in your head…

…then think about how the oil has been gushing out unchecked for well over a month. So far, BP has not done much. What kind of company doesn’t have a contingency plan for a disaster like this? Did they really think nothing like this would ever happen? Why didn’t they have plans in place, just in case? So far, the most help has come from Kevin Costner. Good on him, his brother and their company – but why on earth is a movie star better qualified to clean this up than the enormous company who got the world into this position? And if he’s so much better qualified, why didn’t they get him on board before this happened?

See why I have been trying not to think about this? I get into a stressy, rant-y place. But really, even if BP can’t figure out how to stop the tragedy, why aren’t they at least paying people to get out and clean it up? That’s something achievable that, sadly, people have experience with.

oily pelicans

Why isn't BP paying people to clean up the affected areas and wildlife, like these poor pelicans in Louisiana?*

*Photos by Charlie Riedel for The Big Picture.

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Eco Shoe Choices

I received this article from ecorazzi.com in my RSS list today, and it got me thinking about vegan shoes, and whether you could get animal-free leather-look shoes that are durable and environmentally friendly. Here’s some background to my thoughts:

My work shoes are starting to wear out. The upper seems to be ok (although it is getting thinner in some places), but I have nearly gone entirely through the sole. They have lasted almost a year, which is pretty good for me. The last two pairs of shoes I got lasted about six months each.

The difference? My current pair are made of leather (not vegan), and the previous two pairs were synthetic (vegan).

I thought long and hard about whether I should buy leather shoes. I eventually decided to do it because I felt it was more eco-friendly to buy a pair of shoes made from a natural material (cow skin) that would last a year, than it was to buy a pair of shoes made from petroleum that lasted for only six months. Note: I am not particularly hard on my shoes (unlike Mr Teeny-bop, who wears out his school shoes in three months, sometimes less).

vegan show

Vegan shoe (Roma from Vegan Wares*) similar to the shoes I wear. They are expensive and what are they made from? How long will the last?

However, all year, any time I have thought about my shoes, I think about the poor cow that died to give them to me. I’m determined to make them last as long as possible, to make this sacrifice worthwhile (as much as it can be). I am going to take them to the local cobbler to have him fix the soles, if he thinks the uppers will last me another year or so – if the uppers will only last two more months, I don’t see much point.

I stand by my conviction that it’s better for the environment to use fewer resources, and natural resources at that, but I wish there was a third choice – natural, long-lasting resources that were of plant origin, or alternatively, that would last for ages and ages (or even better, both). So far all I’ve seen are hemp shoes, which would be great for casual wear, but will not work in my semi-corporate work environment.

Does anyone know of shoes that would fit the bill, provided the bill is not exorbitantly expensive (I have seen ok-looking vegan shoes for a couple of hundred dollars, but I don’t want to pay that)? If the cobbler says it’s not worthwhile fixing my shoes, then it might be time to go shoe shopping again, and if I can avoid leather or petroleum, that would be my preference…

*Image comes from Vegan Wares website.

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Fibres: Natural vs Synthetic

Wool vs acrylic? Cotton vs polyester? Hemp vs nylon? I know the natural fibres are typically more comfortable to wear, but what’s better for the environment?

Cotton, wool, hemp, acrylic, polyester...?

Cotton, wool, hemp, acrylic, polyester...?

You might think it’s a simple question – surely the natural stuff is better, right? But when you consider the impact of sheep on the environment or the amount of water required to sustain cotton crops, it does get you starting to wonder… especially when you factor in recycled (and sometimes recyclable) synthetic fabrics, like polyester made from old PET bottles.

But then again… maybe all the hoo-haa about recycled fabrics is just a bunch of greenwash. Check out this article on O Ecotextiles for more information.

Ultimately, I don’t know. I think I need to explore O Ecotextiles a little more and hope to be enlightened. At the moment, though, I’m leaning towards natural, especially when you look at the energy required to produce fabrics, the actual content of the fabric (oil in the synthetic fabrics is kinda off-putting) and the life of the fabrics after we’re finished using them (natural fibres will biodegrade, whereas synthetic ones won’t). Based almost purely on personal opinion, I think probably the best choice would be yarns produced from the by-products of some other industry (like soy yarns, which are made from soy fibres left over from making tofu), or yarn that is removed in a mutually beneficial way (alpaca removed by brushing, shearing pet sheep in summer etc).

Anyone know more and care to share?

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