03 December 2014

A sustainable smile?

With 64.1 millions human mouths in the UK, that's an awful lot of toothbrushes sold every year, especially with the recommendation that they are replaced every 3 months - in fact, it's a £110m annual industry.  But is the design of a toothbrush as sustainable as it could be? Two areas of design will be considered, the product itself, and the way that they are sold.


Various toothbrushes for sale in Sainsbury's

Get a grip

Although dentists recommend replacement of a toothbrush every three months as the bristles wear out, the handle certainly doesn't - and that's where the majority of plastic (and retail packaging) is required.  

The proposal is quite simple - replaceable toothbrush heads, allowing the customer to keep their handle for longer.  The physical connection between handle and head would need to be considered, but inspiration could come from a bayonet lightbulb fitting, or even a hand blender (push on, then twist to lock together):

Connecting the handle and attachment of a hand blender

The toothbrush market is an oligopoly (a few dominant players: P&G own Oral-B, Jordan own Wisdom, Unilever own Signal, Colgate-Palmolive own Colgate, etc.), so with some industry collaboration, they could agree a common connector, much like the mobile phone industry has eventually done in the EU using micro USB chargers.  Such a connection could also support additional brush heads, for denture cleaning, or tongue scraping.


A new revenue model?

If toothbrushes were available where the head and handle were available separately, then could the head replacement be offered as a service?  It would go something like this:

  • Online, in-store, or at the dentist, a customer buys an initial toothbrush kit - simply a handle and standard brush head
  • The customer registers their details online, alongside a direct-debit instruction
  • Every three months, a new head is sent to the customer, at £1 per head (either from manufacturer, or via dentist)
It's a win:win:win:
  • Environment: It saves a significant amount of plastic, and packaging (envelopes for postal service would be fully recyclable)
  • Customer: has improved dental hygiene, as they don't forget to buy a new toothbrush; and it's cheaper and more convenient than the current approach
  • Manufacturer: gets valuable customer data, and can cross-sell discounted consumables like mouthwash and floss - building brand allegiance

Electric toothbrushes

For those that have electric toothbrushes, this isn't a problem of course, as such models offer interchangeable heads for any occasion.



Electric Toothbrush Heads from Oral-B

Unfortunately, much like many smartphones and tablets, they have a battery built-in, which isn't replaceable.  It is not clear how many years (or charging cycles) the battery lasts (at least one manufacturer is only offering a two year guarantee), but I'd assume there are increasing numbers ending-up in landfill, or treated according to the WEEE directive.
Electric Toothbrush from Oral-B

It would be interesting to see how the long-term Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of a manual toothbrush compares to an electric one, and also to see if there are different behaviours used between the two which has an impact on the amount of water used.



Summary

So, even for something as simple as a toothbrush, there might be opportunities to think not only about improving the sustainability of the product, but also a new revenue model.

PS

...why are toothpaste tubes sold in cardboard boxes?!

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