is this bamboo toothbrush legit?

the other day i saw a bamboo toothbrush that i wanted. but i know oftentimes consumerism capitalism likes to suage things to make them appear environmentally friendly when they’re really just wolves in sheeps clothing… (wow that sentence is a deeply accurate illustratation of the mood i’m in right now, ha!). anyway, i asked my friend and professor buddy, jonathan krones, for his thoughts. i’m sharing them here because i think they’re super important and i want other folks to see them. also he said i could.

Here are my thoughts on products like this one.

First, it needs to be as functional as a regular toothbrush. If people buy it and it sucks, then they throw it out and buy a regular toothbrush instead, which doesn’t improve anything. Or if people stick with it and get cavities/gum disease/etc., then we are missing the mark on product development.

Second, biodegradability, which they stress in their marketing material, is a distraction. For one thing, it is the upstream impacts that matter for products like this one. If the energy used and emissions generated in the manufacturing and transportation of this product are less than a functionally equivalent plastic toothbrush, then it is a good product. If not, then it is not. I don’t know enough about the bamboo supply chain to be able to tell you one way or the other. As for the waste impacts, biodegradability is a matter of time. Wood is biodegradable, but it takes years, so you wouldn’t want to just toss it out your window when you’re done with it (as you can do with an apple core, for instance). And a composting system wouldn’t benefit from this either, since it is all cellulose/lignin and no starch/sugar (which is what the little bugs like). So what’s left is the landfill, or more accurately in Boston, the incinerator. A wood product is probably worse, climate-wise, than a plastic one in either end-of-life scenario, however. In landfill, climate forcing impacts stem mainly from biodegradable materials breaking down in the landfill’s anaerobic environment and turning into methane, which is a major greenhouse gas (25-30x as bad as CO2, per unit mass). Wood, being biodegradable, contributes to this methane emission, while plastic doesn’t. In an incinerator, you can get some mild carbon benefits by offsetting more carbon-intensive electricity. This one is a bit trickier to analyze. Emissions from burning wood are generally not counted as net emissions, since the carbon being released is taken up by trees. But there’s a lot more energy in plastic than there is in wood, so burning plastic offsets more dirty electricity.

Anyway, this is probably more than you were looking for on the environmental impact front. In general I’m very wary of these types of products (even though I consume them) because they are virtue signaling devices, distracting us with their shininess, allowing us to focus our attention on the phenomenally marginal impacts associated with their consumption instead of either the major personal consumption impacts (like flights or meat) or the structural things like coal and suburbs.

Finally, a “carbon-free” future can’t exclude plastic, even plastic created from petroleum. It is too useful and functional, including to all sorts of green energy and low-carbon consumption products (plastic lightweighting is very helpful in driving down transportation costs and substituting for heavier, higher-impact materials like metals). And while ocean plastic is certainly a problem, it is not located in a toothbrush.

words / writing / post-processing
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