B1 Intermediate US 44 Folder Collection
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(tapping)
- [Narrator] Hopefully you know this already but ...
that's a toothbrush.
So are these.
And the one thing they have in common:
they're all plastic.
But here's something you might not know.
This routine has been around for a millennia.
And back then, they used chewing sticks.
(sticks rattling)
Fast forward a bit to 1498, China.
They used a bamboo handle and some hog hair.
(snorting)
But here's the thing.
One estimate says one billion toothbrushes
are ending up here every year in the U.S.
And that sounds bad.
But we might be able to change that.
(upbeat music)
(gulls cawing)
Now, let's go meet a dentist.
(bouncy piano music)
- I'm Dr. Scott Swank, dentist.
I've been practicing for 30 years.
- [Narrator] But Scott isn't just any dentist.
- I'm currently the curator at the National Museum
of Dentistry in Baltimore, Maryland.
This is George Washington's lower denture.
And these are dental scalers fit for a queen.
These were actually owned by Queen Victoria.
This is the Swiss army knife of tooth extraction devices.
Brushing your teeth became important during the Civil War.
Men were being disqualified for service
because they didn't have two opposing back teeth,
and they needed those in order to tear open
paper rifle and musket cartridges.
(emphatic drumming)
- [Narrator] So, here's what that looks like.
- [Reenactor] Fire. (rifle firing)
- [Narrator] And that's pretty hard to do
if you don't have, um ...
teeth.
But here was the problem with that.
Toothbrushes hadn't really caught on yet in America.
By 1924, only about 20% of Americans brushed their teeth,
which is gross.
And then the Dupont Company introduced nylon.
to the American public in the late 1930s.
And, boom, the very first nylon bristle toothbrush.
Then came World War II.
- But most important of all, clean your teeth often.
Clean them well.
- [Narrator] And it was during the war that the Army
decided to give every soldier a toothbrush
and make it a mandatory part of their daily routine.
And that toothbrush design,
it hasn't really changed since.
(staccato electronic music)
This is Charlotte Fiell.
- F-I-E-L-L, and it's pronounced Fiell.
- [Narrator] She's a leading expert on design
and has written a lot of books,
including this one on the history of plastics.
- It was a fascinating journey,
because I didn't realize what a incredible history it had.
In the future, we have to use plastics more thoughtfully.
When you actually think about them,
they're incredibly noble, precious materials.
There's no reason why something that's made of plastic
can't last a lifetime.
(bright electronic music)
- [Narrator] The answer: three to four months,
at least according to the ADA.
So with 300 million Americans,
that's 1.2 billion toothbrushes
being thrown away just in America.
That's enough to warp around the world four times.
Now, let's look ahead.
- If you're a designer, you have an absolute duty
to design properly, especially,
especially if they're using plastics,
because plastics might be cheap materials,
but they actually have
a very high impact on the environment.
They're very expensive materials
when you actually think of them in a holistic way.
- [Narrator] Okay, so here are some options.
We could use alternative materials:
bone, metal, recycled plastic, or bamboo could work.
There are toothbrushes with replaceable heads,
and then there's pig hair, which biodegrades,
but it wouldn't be an option for vegans
and people with certain religious beliefs.
Lastly, chewing sticks created from the neem tree
are a totally plastic-free option.
But that would be a huge cultural shift.
Change takes time.
And because we've been using the same toothbrush design
for about 70 years, maybe that time is ...
now.
(blissful electronic music)
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How Your Toothbrush Became a Part of the Plastic Crisis | National Geographic

44 Folder Collection
Courtney Shih published on January 21, 2020
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