Greening the electric toothbrush
Once the battery dies on most electric toothbrushes, they go in the bin. Not so with this toothbrush. A new British startup has redesigned the electric toothbrush from the ground up to make it repairable and recyclable.
When the rechargeable battery wears out inside a typical electric toothbrush, it can’t be replaced — which means the entire, otherwise functional toothbrush ends up in landfill. Or, if someone is particularly responsible, it might go to an e-waste recycling facility. But a new modular electric toothbrush, designed with its environmental footprint in mind upfront, can be repaired, so it lasts much longer.
The toothbrush is the work of London-based startup SURI (Sustainable Rituals). It has a body made from recyclable aluminium rather than plastic; and its plant-based plastic heads can be sent back for recycling in either the UK or the US, or, in some cases, industrially composted. And the electronic components inside are designed to be replaced if a repair is needed.
Cofounders Mark Rushmore and Gyve Safavi previously worked at Proctor & Gamble, and kept thinking about the many billions of toothbrushes — both manual and electric — thrown out each year. With manual toothbrushes, “we found that many people actually think toothbrushes are recyclable,” Safavi told Fast Company. “But in reality, they’re not. They’re made from multiple different types of materials — polypropylene, silicone and nylon bristles. While the materials themselves could be recycled, when we went to recycling plants, they said, ‘Yeah, these could be recycled, but we don’t have the time. And it just costs too much money to recycle them.'”
In landfill, they don’t break down. Electric toothbrushes can pose even more of a challenge, since lithium ion batteries can leach pollutants into the soil and groundwater. The materials in the battery could have value if recycled, but they often aren’t. The battery itself is welded inside the plastic handle.
Most electric toothbrushes are white-labeled, the company says, meaning manufacturers make the same product for multiple brands, with different labels. But SURI wanted to start from scratch. By redesigning the inner components, the designers were able to shrink the size of the handle to roughly a third of a traditional electric toothbrush, though it still can vibrate as powerfully. (A standard electric toothbrush, they note, looks basically like it did in the 1960s.) They also eliminated features consumers said they rarely used, such as Bluetooth and a charging light, and those changes help the battery last a month or more on a single charge; by charging less often, the battery will last longer.
Manufacturing was a challenge because factories had never taken on a similar job. “When we talked to factories, they said, ‘Why would you want to repair a toothbrush? You could just sell customers a new one,'” says Safavi. They talked to more than 20 factories before finding one willing to do the work, including working with new materials, such as plant-based castor oil to make the bristles.
At large consumer-product companies, “sustainability is often an afterthought,” he says. “You design a product with certain criteria, and then you’re like, okay, now, how do we make it sustainable? . . . We wanted to start a business that was founded on design, performance and sustainability on an even setting, rather than sort of trying to retrofit something in afterwards.”
If the rechargeable battery dies, the toothbrush can be sent back to the company to have a new battery swapped in. A future version of the brush will likely ship with instructions for consumers to replace the battery themselves.
While they were working on product development, both cofounders also became fathers. “There’s something about becoming a dad that really focuses the mind on the world we’re bringing our children into, and to be able to look them in the eye and say what we did to try and help in some small way,” says Rushmore. “If we can do something toward making things a bit better, then that felt like a worthwhile mission.”
ABOVE The SURI electric toothbrush