This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
At first, years ago, it was just an occasional piece of plastic trash that Kahi Pacarro, the founder of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, picked up on the beach cleanups he organized around the state. A straw here, a takeout container there. But one day Pacarro spotted something particularly surprising in the beach detritus: a toothbrush.
Now, in any given Hawaii beach cleanup, he says, it’s not uncommon to pick up 20 or even 100 toothbrushes.
The reason is simple. The total number of plastic toothbrushes being produced, used, and thrown away each year has grown steadily since the first one was made in the 1930s.
“I like to ask people, what’s the first thing you touch in the morning? It’s probably your toothbrush,” says Pacarro. “Do you want the first thing you touch every day to be plastic?”
For centuries, the basic toothbrush was made from natural materials. But during the early 20th century, the giddy early days of plastic innovation, manufacturers started substituting nylon and other plastics into the design—and never looked back.
Plastic has so fully infiltrated toothbrush design that it’s nearly impossible to clean our teeth without touching a polymer. And because plastic is essentially indestructible, that means nearly every single toothbrush made since the 1930s is still out there in the world somewhere, living on as a piece of trash.
Now, some designers are looking for ways to reimagine this crucial, classic object in a way...