A Dental Student’s Fight Against Plastic Toothbrushes and Other Dental Waste

It was all the toothbrushes that first caught Rodrick Wiggins’ attention.

When Wiggins and his D22 classmates were fledgling students at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM), they practiced cleaning each other’s teeth. “And then when we were done, we threw the toothbrushes away,” recalls Wiggins. “It seemed like a lot of waste. And that made me do some research about how we can be more sustainable.”

His research showed that TUSDM was certainly not alone in sending used toothbrushes into the waste stream. Every year, according to the American Dental Association, one billion toothbrushes are discarded in the United States—from dental schools, private practices, clinics, hospitals, and everyone who brushes their teeth at home.

“It’s almost unfathomable to envision what one billion of anything looks like,” Wiggins wrote in a blog post for the American Student Dental Association. These discarded toothbrushes “find themselves in our landfills, on the beaches of Central America, in the forests of West Africa.” And that one billion figure applies only to manual toothbrushes, Wiggins says—it doesn’t include electric toothbrush heads, which only add to the amount of plastic being tossed.

The realization started Wiggins on a hunt for ways to keep the dental school—and dentistry as a whole—on a sustainable path. Over his four years at Tufts, he has laid the groundwork for new ways of dealing with toothbrushes and other plastic waste.

“We tell patients to brush twice a day, floss twice a day, and use these products,” he says. “But then we’re almost backhandedly contributing to the environmental crisis by giving away and recommending these items that can’t be broken down.”

Forming a Partnership

The lion’s share of the waste generated by dentistry falls into the categories of medical waste or hazardous substances, and there are regulations and procedures for its handling and disposal. For example, the EPA mandates that dentists use special devices to collect, separate, and dispose of waste from amalgam, the silvery substance used to fill cavities, which contains mercury and other heavy metals. Technology has also moved dentistry away from more hazardous traditional practices: When TUSDM, like many places in the dental world, made the switch to all-digital radiography about 20 years ago, it eliminated the need for X-ray film, which contains lead, and the chemicals used to develop those X-rays.

But, plastic waste from toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, floss containers, and packaging can still bedevil dental facilities. So Wiggins turned his attention to the question of whether toothbrushes could be recycled. That led him to TerraCycle, a company that specializes in repurposing hard-to-recycle items. TerraCycle works with Colgate’s Oral Care Recycling Program to collect and process oral care products. Wiggins partnered with TerraCycle to create an oral hygiene recycling program that would give the Tufts’ toothbrushes new lives as bins, backpacks, and school supplies. In addition to the environmental benefits, Tufts would receive payment from TerraCycle, slated to go toward the school’s Impact Fund for medically complex patients.

The pilot was set to start in the orthodontics clinic. But no sooner were the recycling bins readied than COVID arrived and added challenging new layers to the practice of infection control. A used toothbrush suddenly became a possible COVID risk. “Everything came to a halt immediately,” Wiggins says.

A Biodegradable Toothbrush

Faced with this COVID-induced limbo, Wiggins turned his attention to a related project, working with a collaborator to design a new type of biodegradable toothbrush. While there are several types of biodegradable toothbrushes already on the market—many are made of bamboo—Wiggins says his goal is to create a toothbrush that will decompose more quickly.

His other aim is to make the transition seamless for the typical toothbrush user. “We want it to be very similar to how it feels when you brush your teeth with a plastic toothbrush, as opposed to the bamboo toothbrushes, which are just a little bit different when it comes to feel. A lot of people don’t want to change. We want to meet the consumer in the middle.”

This spring, Wiggins has been looking toward a possible restart for the recycling effort in the Tufts’ pediatric clinic. Since he’s graduating in May and heading off to a residency program in New York, the next chapter will need to be carried on by other TUSDM students.

While promoting eco-friendly change within dentistry is particularly important to Wiggins, “there is a bigger picture to it other than, oh, my toothbrush won’t show up on the beach somewhere,” he says.

It’s also about the power of small, everyday actions to protect the planet. “That’s the goal, to get us all to start thinking that way in all aspects of our life,” he says. “And it starts with one little aspect.”