Blog #7: White and Shiney ... !?

February 25 2021
Rosie Evans & Monika Weber-Fahr
It's one week into Lent, and yes, we have begun experimenting with the Green Anglican’s PlasticFasting calendar. For this week, the calendar suggested mindful actions to avoid plastic use when shopping for food, such as avoiding foam takeaways, refusing straws, avoiding single-use plastic shopping bags or plastic cutlery, all quite easy practices that we have added to our zero-waste menu. Next week, however, things will get more challenging. The calendar’s focus will be on avoiding plastic in the bathroom. For our readers, we wanted to check out what no/low plastic products for dental care are available in shops in Vienna. Here is what we discovered. 
Teeth matter, and not just for our health. Having white and shiny teeth seems to be a cultural signal for intelligence and attractiveness in many societies. While some form of teeth-cleaning has been around for several thousands of years, the Chinese may have been the ones to invent, or at least popularize, the first toothbrush in the 15th century. Today’s toothbrush design goes back to 1780 when William Addis created something made from cattle bone for the handle and swine bristles for the brush portion. Shortly after, plastic entered the equation. Plastic has been used for producing brushes at scale since the 1930s, added to the toothpaste itself, used to pack the paste, and used to produce and pack the floss.
Plastic brushes are a massive problem for planetary health. We can personally attest to this, having participated in river clean ups along the Danube here in Vienna, and along the Potomac in Washington DC. One always finds old plastic brushes and it's no wonder as they seem to biodegrade only after 400 years and are VERY hard to recycle. Worldwide, some records indicate that about 3.5 billion toothbrushes are sold every year. While we are not sure all available numbers add up properly, some reports note that Americans alone throw away about 1 billion toothbrushes annually. There is no debating that plastic toothbrushes find their way into marine debris and the stomachs of fish and marine mammals. Also toothpaste has contributed to the distribution of plastics across the planet, even though in many places the microplastics that they contain have been outlawed. Just the safe disposal or recycling of the approximate 1.5 billion toothpaste tubes that are discarded every year present a massive challenge.

From Greenpeace.org "Defending our OceansTour: Hawaii Trash" 
No/Low-Plastic Tooth Paste. In Vienna, it’s relatively easy to find three types of products: tooth-tabs (denttabs is the go to product, available at DM stores, packaged in paper bags), toothpaste in glass containers (Ben&Anna is a popular product, available in three flavors, both at Denn’s and Reformhaeuser), and toothpaste-powder, also sold in glass containers. If you are willing to go to Amazon, you can find more products, such as Chewy-Tabs. Our testing for taste and texture yielded mixed results. We both like our toothpaste to be foamy and have a strong (usually minty) flavour to leave the mouth feeling refreshed. One of us struggled with the denttabs, having to google how to go about chewing them until the tab makes a smooth paste. For foam enthusiasts, the experience is disappointing. Almost zero foam, and barely a sense of refreshment, as if one had not even brushed. The Ben&Anna paste did a bit better in the foamy department and also in look and feel, but also here the taste did not have the minty kick we were used to. The powder was the last one we tried and we differed on how we liked the taste (there are many options for taste available, though). But, foamy it was! The one thing that was a bit tricky was knowing how much to put on. We are not sure we got it right. But, hopefully with time, one could learn. Our conclusion? Mixed. On further research into the DentaTabs, we discovered that the lack of foam seems to relate to the absence of sulphates, and we felt reassured that one tablet is enough to do the job. Taking into account the little amount of packaging (they come in a paper bag, and if one buys them from a zero-waste shop, you can even put them in your own container), these definitely do seem to be the best option for the environment. The more we used them, we felt they grew on us. It may, perhaps, just take a bit of time to get used to. It is important to note though: All non-plastic options seem to be quite a bit more expensive than the toothpaste in plastic tubes. The tooth-tabs, for example, come in at just under 5 cents per tab, about 2 times or more than brushing with a regular toothpaste such as Colgate purchased at BIPA.

Foto of the paper bag in which DENTtabs are sold.
No/Low-Plastic Toothbrushes. Somewhat shocked by the sheer number of plastic toothbrushes we seem to be sending to the planet’s landfills, we proceeded to try two no/low-plastic brushes. Many stores in Vienna now offer some versions, mostly bamboo or wood.  We tried a charcoal toothbrush and a bamboo toothbrush, both available in Reformhaus Martin. When testing the charcoal toothbrush, we were baffled by what seemed to be an enormous amount of plastic packaging when this was supposed to be an alternative to plastic toothbrushes. The information on the box reassured us that the packaging was made from bioplastic, just like the toothbrush itself, more eco-friendly than regular plastic, but still with a heavy impact on the environment. The brush itself was impressive. It is rather different to the ones we were used to, the bristles are softer. But, it worked well and felt nice and soft on the gums. Important to note: Charcoal brushes are worth looking out for in that they are much better in not harboring the bacteria that one can often find in the brushes we all use. The bamboo toothbrush impressed us too. Just opening the paper package makes you smile, plus there is a beautiful little flower pattern on the handle. With a preference for firmer bristles, this one felt better to both of us. Note: The bristle is made from castor oil (yes, that is possible), and this is an important feature since many eco brushes end up with plastic for the bristle, so it is worth paying attention to. Previous experiences with bamboo toothbrushes suggest that the regular plastic ones do seem to last longer. Once again, we are finding that plastic seems to be the cheaper option. On the other hand, let’s not forget that we are supposed to change our toothbrush every three months or so, something that many of us tend to forget. Maybe it’s a good thing that the eco-friendly bamboo brush brittle deteriorates quickly and reminds us to go ahead and buy a new one?

Foto of one of the bamboo brushes. Here, the bristle is made from castor oil.
In summary: Yes, we do have options here in Vienna. We can switch from plastic toothbrushes and plastic-packed toothpaste to non-plastic versions. Billa or Hofer are not great, though. It mostly involves a trip to a Denn, a Reformmarkt, or similar store. The products require some getting used to and they are more expensive. Plus, they leave us with questions. How much more environmentally-friendly is a glass container from a plastic one? Will the DentaTabs protect my teeth well enough? Does the need to replace the bamboo toothbrush more frequently outweigh its more sustainable material? Sometimes we find these questions confusing and online resources often reflect different views and opinions. In the end, we must do our best with the information we have. And we do find the amount of plastic waste caused by dental hygiene products overwhelming. We want to investigate the matter of toothbrushes further. And we can’t deny that the DentaTabs use significantly less packaging than regular toothpaste. All in, flexibility and compromise may be important on the path forward. Stay tuned and share with us your own experiences and choices!