I was contemplating buying an electric toothbrush for both dental hygiene and sustainability reasons, but the Oral-B Smart 1500 Electric Toothbrush really isn’t as sustainable as I thought. So I am reconsidering the option now. The Li-ion battery really isn’t the ideal while the presumably energy-intensive production process further concerns me. Additionally, I am also not satisfied by the sustainability progress made by P&G, Oral-B’s mother company. A cooperation is understandably profit-driven, but the company at its scale has so much market power that it could have driven changes toward more sustainable production practices while still generating revenue. Kind of disappointed at the product, I am sticking with my manual toothbrush and purchasing the ones made of bamboos for now.
Despite the relative small size, the Oral-B Smart 1500 Electric toothbrush is a complex object consists of multiple parts made by different materials. The most obvious ones are the nylon bristles for the brush head and the plastic body. In addition to the superior ability to protect dental hygiene, using an electric toothbrush might also seem to be more sustainable than the plastic manual ones as we would not be throwing away toothbrushes at least once every three month. However, I realized that this is not the case when considering its environmental impact during production and methods of disposal after use.
This electric toothbrush, like most of similar products on the market, uses Li-ion battery to allow recharges. The typical estimated life of a Li-ion battery is about three years, which poses a significant limit on the product lifetime, especially when the battery is not replaceable. Additionally, it is recommended to replace the brush head at least every six months to ensure hygiene purposes. So by the end of the three-year period, we have to dispose the entire electric toothbrush along with three replacement head cumulatively. They are very likely to end up in a landfill because even though Li-ion batteries technically are recyclable, the complex nature of the electric toothbrush make it hard to take apart and recover the recyclable materials. For the exact same reason, it is also logical to infer that the production process of an electric toothbrush is more energy intensive than a manual toothbrush. The former requires more types of materials to be assembled according to a carefully designed system while the latter only involves securing nylon bristles onto plastic handles (which can be replaced with bamboo handles for smaller environmental impact).
Therefore, based on production and disposal process, the material used for manufacturing Oral-B Smart 1500 Electric Toothbrush are not sustainable at all.
The company does not disclose the specific details regarding the process but I would assume that it is produced in an industrial scale manufacturing site with multiple assembly lines. I could not find the manufacturing location of this specific model, yet most of the Oral-B electric toothbrushes are manufactured either in Germany or in China. Even though Oral-B advertises the product with its superior features including a pressure sensor and a timer, it clearly still goes through the basic manufacturing process of a generic electric toothbrush. Plastic pellets are melted and pressured in the mold to form the the brush handle case and the brush head. The nylon bristles are secured and trimmed to complete the brush head. The motor, gearing system, and the battery are then sealed inside the brush handle case to complete the process. It seems like no additional chemicals that might be potential threats to the environment are used, but the energy consumption must be significant to carry out the entire process. Thus, it depends on the energy source of the manufacturing site as well as its practice in conserving energy during the process to evaluate its production sustainability. More details are needed to make an informed judgement.
Oral-B is currently owned by Proctor & Gamble after its acquisition of the Gillette group. The corporation fell into controversy after their sourcing of palm oil was found to be linked to forced child labor. Since then, P&G has issued and updated their Palm Responsible Sourcing Policy to source more ethically and sustainably while improving their supply chain transparency. It has self-reported to prohibit deforestation and commit to responsible forestry shown through third-party certification. It’s significant progress on ethical and sustainable palm oil sourcing shows the direct positive impact of pressures from stakeholders and consumers.
In 2020, P&G reported on its accomplishment of the sustainable goals set in 2010 and declared their Ambition 2030 goals. Even though the report celebrates its accomplishments including reduced or recycled packaging, higher water efficiency at manufacturing site, and new products that encourage energy conservation, I am not fully satisfied about the change and am skeptical about the goals. P&G states that it strives to “enable responsible consumption”, which positions itself as an instrument for consumers instead of a driving force for sustainable production. It is applaudable that the cooperation has carried out projects in accordance to the UN SDGs, yet in a way it still deflects the majority of responsibility to consumers when the report highlighted their pilot recycling program and how their product encourage energy conservation. Such programs provides indirect impact that heavily rely on individual participation. A cooperation like P&G have a lot of market power that could fuel more changes, especially in material sourcing. The sustainability report along with the 2030 goals do not include a lot related to supply chain management when it could have set more ambitious goals beyond palm oil sourcing. It is clear that P&G still prioritizes sales-associated growth.