Innovation & Design

Preserve Toothbrush -- Envirodental


Is it possible to make a toothbrush that does the job without contributing to landfill waste? While traditional consumer product companies completely over-design the simple toothbrush, Recycline offers a brush that is well designed and attempts to take a bite out of environmental waste.

If you frequent your neighborhood pharmacy and peruse the dental hygiene aisle in the section reserved for toothbrushes, it may overwhelm you. There are multiple brands, prices ranging from US $1.99 to US $7.99, and hues that span the colors of the rainbow -- sometimes all on the same brush. The designs appear more high-tech than your average sneaker, and have a similar aesthetic: loud colors, lots of rubber, and bells and whistles up the wazoo.

The shape of the toothbrush has also proliferated beyond the point of functionality. Most toothbrushes have curved handles, mimicking the classic feminine "hourglass" shape. Others employ large, clunky heads that more closely resemble a hairbrush than a toothbrush.

Dare it be said that toothbrushes are now over-designed? They certainly no longer fit in the nifty toothbrush holders that come installed in apartment bathrooms. Green plastic handles with red bristles and an orange rubber grip are completely normal in the toothbrush category. Why would anyone want such a hideous mess of colors displayed in a bathroom?

As if that weren't bad enough, the American Dental Association recommends that consumers replace their toothbrush every three to four months. That certainly makes one consider the expense of a $7.99 toothbrush. Furthermore, this represents a huge amount of plastic and rubber that goes to waste every few months. According to a section on green tips on the National Zoo website, 50 million pounds of used toothbrushes are dumped in landfills each year in the US.

Yet nobody can doubt the need for a toothbrush. In a recent study, respondents said that the toothbrush was the most important invention ever, even beating out the car. How did this simple, useful tool come to be an over-designed, overpriced source of so much waste?

Toothbrushes are known to have existed as far back as 3000 BC. Ancient civilizations used "chew sticks," thin twigs with a frayed end that was rubbed against teeth (still an option in many parts of the world). The first mass-produced toothbrush was made by William Addis of Clerkenwald, England, around 1780 (ironic given the jokes about the state of British dentistry). The bristles were actually stiff, coarse hairs taken from the back of a hog's neck, and attached to handles made of bone or bamboo. These bristles often fell out or were easily contaminated by bacteria.

The first American to patent a toothbrush was H.N. Wadsworth in the 1850s. (Mass production of toothbrushes didn't begin in the US until around 1885.) The nylon bristle toothbrush, similar to the type used today, was produced using technology developed by DuPont and first went on sale in 1938.

Right after World War II, toothbrushes caught on in the United States, and today, it is unheard of for somebody not to own one. However, as the number of toothbrushes on the market proliferates, so do the number of designs. Although each toothbrush manufacturer struggles to distinguish itself on the shelf, typically no one is focusing on reducing the waste that is caused when one upgrades from brush to brush.

Years ago, aluminum cans, glass bottles, and plastics were all simply thrown in the garbage, left to languish in landfills. Today, in some cities, like New York, building management can be fined for not recycling these objects; that which was once unquestionably disposable is now automatically recycled. Could this be the future for many everyday products? Some companies take the lead in developing simply designed, eco-friendly products.

A toothbrush designed by Recycline called Preserve is such a solution. Recycline, Inc., located in Waltham, Massachusetts, manufactures environmentally-friendly products using recycled material. Recycline partnered with the University of Massachusetts at Lowell to design the brush and Stonyfield Farm Yogurt to supply the material. The idea is that recycled yogurt containers are used to make the toothbrush handles. Each toothbrush comes in a clear container made from recycled plastic, which is useful for travel purposes. Inside the package is a piece of paper with the product logo and information. The paper is recycled and printed with soy-based inks, which are not as harmful to the environment as regular inks. At most retailers, you can pick up envelopes near the Preserve display that allow you to return your toothbrush(es), free of charge, to the Recycline facilities, where it will be recycled again.

The toothbrush itself is simply designed. The brush handle is sleek, with a subtle curve out from the base that narrows at the head. A second, unique, reverse curve arches the handle backward, apparently allowing for a gentler brushing technique. (On the company's website there is a link to directions outlining the "Bass Technique" for effective brushing.) In other words, the brush handle is not just curved for a more ergonomic grip of the brush, but also to increase the ease and benefits of brushing. A little more than halfway up from the base there are three girdles around the handle for gripping purposes. These bump-outs are not simple low relief plastic rings, but slant upwards and curve into the backwards arch of the upper part of the brush, like vertebrae in the spine. The simplicity of the design is a nice contrast from that of competitors, because it emphasizes its function as opposed to just being a fancy design. With this streamlined aesthetic and the benefits of the reverse curve, there is no need for rubber on the handle. The bristles are set at different lengths to reach between teeth and be gentle on the gums.

Another nice touch is that the color palette is more subdued than most toothbrushes on the market. The product comes with just one color per brush; these include muted orange, lavender, light pink, dark blue, moss green, beige, yellow, black, and burgundy. The use of earth tones reflects the core identity and brand message of the Recycline brand.

Unfortunately, although the Recycline/Preserve website is thorough and interesting, it is also convoluted and not easy to navigate. Advertising for the Preserve toothbrush makes very little reference to Recycline. (Note to Recycline: Concentrate on communicating product benefits next.)

Another eco-friendly toothbrush on the market is the Radius Intelligent Toothbrush. The brush beeps when the user has brushed for two minutes; this is the recommended brushing time, as determined by dentists. An indicator light turns red after 90 days to inform the user that it's time to change the toothbrush head. A replaceable head reduces the waste of buying a whole new toothbrush every 90 days. Consumers can purchase a 3-pack of replaceable toothbrush heads for US$ 6.95.

The handle of the Intelligent Toothbrush is very ergonomic; it has a curved bump-out at the bottom of the handle for comfortable gripping in the palm of the hand. Another nice feature: the toothbrush handle curve is available for both right- and left-handed users. Paradoxically, Radius has several other designs of toothbrushes, which are not so clever. One of them is the aforementioned $8 clunker with the head that looks like a hairbrush.

The mantra in eco-friendly circles is well known: recycle, reuse, and reduce. This can be followed by designers as well, even if not as literally. The reduction of over-designed products can help reduce the amount of waste, while using eco-friendly material is even better.


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