Plastic Monday: Plastic-Free Toothpaste and Other Odds and Ends

Submitted by aatkins on November 28, 2011

I just have to say, I think my favorite part of this whole Take the Plastic Challenge has been interacting with all of you Green Americans in the comments section. Thanks for making my attempt at changing my plastic-centered habits a fun learning experience!

Common wisdom (and apparently some scientific study floating around somewhere) says that it takes 21 days to change a habit. It’s been more than that since we started our challenge to get the Stupid Plastic out of our lives, and I’m happy to say I’m making progress.

Here are some new tips and resources I’ve learned about since the “Take the Plastic Challenge” Green American started hitting mailboxes:


  • Plastic-free lip balm: Organic lip balm is a staple in my household, especially during the dry winter months, but it most often comes in plastic tubes. I’ve found two ways to deal with this.

You can buy organic lip balm in a compostable cardboard tube from Green America Green Business Network member Organic Essence. The company also sells shea butter in compostable cardboard containers.

You can also recycle your old lip balm tubes, as well as other plastic cosmetic cases, through Terracycle. (Find our article explaining how Terracycle helps individuals recycle hard-to-recycle items and helps nonprofits and schools raise money here.) I’ve also started sending my breakfast cereal bags to Terracycle for recycling, since that’s one plastic-packaged item I haven’t wanted to give up.

  • Plastic-free laundry: At the beginning of this challenge, I was buying homemade laundry soap from a nice man at my local farmers’ market. I returned the plastic jugs it came in to him when I was finished, and he would refill and resell them. However, I haven’t seen him yet at the winter market, so I’ve had to take matters into my own hands.

Matt and Betsy Jabs of the fabulous DIY Natural blog have a recipe for making your own laundry soap here, which works quite well. I use homemade soap I buy from a friend of mine who is a local, organic herb farmer and soap maker. Barring that (Heh.), you can use sustainably made soap from one of our Green America Green Business Network members, like the easy-to-find Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. (Yes, they make bar soap as well as their popular liquid soap.)

But I like having something ready to use for those days when I need to shove in a load of laundry and just don’t have time to be shaving soap bars. Enter … soap nuts.

What are soap nuts? They are dried fruit berries that fall from the soapberry tree, which grows mainly in India and Nepal. The outer shells release saponin, a natural soap, when they are agitated in your washing machine. Not only do they naturally clean, but they act as a natural fabric softener, too, eliminating the need for chemical-laden dryer sheets.

I recently mail-ordered a bag from Yoreganics, and I’m in love. The soap nuts came in a small bag, about the size of your average coffee bag. My 1 lb. bag contains enough nuts for a whopping 160 loads.

What I do is put five soap nuts into the little muslin bag that came with them, toss them into my washing machine, and let them have at it—no pretreating required! The cool thing is I can use the soap nuts five times before I’ve exhausted their saponin supply.

I meant to do a side-by-side comparison of a soap nut wash and an eco-friendly detergent wash and post a photo for you all, but I had to post this blog sooner than I meant to, and it didn’t happen. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have that photo for you!

The cool thing about the soap nuts (beside the fact that I’m washing my clothes with berries!) is that they come in very minimal packaging. Sure, there’s a bit of plastic lining the bag they came in to keep them from getting wet and spoiled, but it’s so much less than when I buy a bulk bottle of detergent.

FYI: I have a high-efficiency washer, and both the DIY Natural recipe and the soap nuts work very well in it.

  • Plastic-free toothpaste and toothbrushes: We’ve had a big discussion about plastic-free toothpaste and toothbrushes in the comments sections of our Plastic Monday blogs. I thought I would post some of the tips and resources our members recommend:

As for toothbrushes, we at Green America have long recommended those from Preserve, which are made from recycled #5 plastic and can be sent back to the company after their useful life is over for recycling again.

Commenter Papperskatten from Sweden also recommended a Naturborsten wooden toothbrush. Naturborsten is a family-owned and –operated company from Germany, and their brushes are made of sustainably harvested wood. Here’s the part that squicked me out a little: the bristles are made of pig hair.

The hair is thoroughly sterilized, of course. And apparently, the hair comes from a long-haired pig raised in China for meat, so it would otherwise be thrown away if it weren’t used for these brushes. If you’re a committed animal rights advocate, you may want to opt for the Recycline brush. But Paperskatten mentions that the wooden brushes do have another perk—they last longer than a plastic brush, because the bristles don’t degrade as quickly. All you have to do is boil them every so often, and they’re “good as new.”

Green American GBN member Life Without Plastic sells the wooden brushes here.

For toothpaste, you can avoid plastic tubes with Lush’s “Toothy Tabs” or Uncle Harry’s tooth powder. Blogger Beth Terry says that while it comes in a plastic jar, you can buy it in bulk and ask them to package it in paper.

Some toothpastes imported from Europe come in an aluminum tube, although the shipping may negate any benefits you achieve by recycling the tubes.

Commenter Sarah Roberts suggests brushing with plain, old baking soda, dissolved slightly in a few drops of water. “Many people get fewer cavities using baking soda, it’s cheap, it comes in recyclable cardboard boxes, and it is much better for your digestion than toothpaste. It tastes fine, maybe a little salty,” she says. She suggests packing some in an old prescription medicine bottle when you travel.

And for flossing, commenter Deborah Blankenberg recommends Eco-Dent Gentle floss, which is packaged in recyclable paper.

I get asked a lot whether these seemingly small green steps we take in our lives really matter. I think they do. Creating change is all about changing mindsets, and when you take a step in your life and tell your friends about it, they’re more likely to rethink their choices in the future. They tell their friends, who then rethink their choices, and it becomes a bona fide trend. This happened to bottled water, which went from being considered a ridiculous luxury to a necessity, and is now going back to being thought of as ridiculous–and environmentally damaging to boot. More people are feeling comfortable taking their own reusable shopping bags to the store with them, whereas before this was considered a norm, they may have felt embarrassed holding up the line at the checkout counter.

I believe it’s imperative that we do the same with single-use, unnecessary Stupid Plastic. Every step we take to make the world better matters.

Have you discovered any new resources or ways to get rid of Stupid Plastic? What questions or problems have you been unable to solve as of yet? And do you think the small green steps we take matter?

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