Bite Reinvents Toothpaste to Go Zero Waste

These tablets come in a jar instead of a disposable tube.

Bite products

Bite

Zero waste is a popular concept on Treehugger; my colleague Katherine Martinko, our zero waste queen, tells us that "the quantity of trash being generated globally is staggering – and very little is recycled. The average American produces 4.5 pounds of waste daily." That waste includes a billion toothpaste tubes every year worldwide and a lot of plastic containers for other tooth-related products like dental floss.

This is why I was so intrigued by Bite, developed by Lindsay McCormick to eliminate all that waste. She writes:

"I started to search for a sustainable alternative, and that’s when I learned about all the questionable ingredients that are in commercial toothpaste. I didn't want those ingredients in my body, but I couldn’t find a brand that was plastic-free and used ingredients I could trust. So, I decided to make my own. Bite was founded on the belief that a brighter smile doesn’t need to come at the expense of our bodies or the environment. Our daily habits matter, and the small changes we make together can add up to something big."
Lindsay McCormick with Asher
Lindsay McCormick at work.

Bite

To make this work, one has to start with a redesign of the product itself and drop the paste. People used to use tooth powder, but according to Colgate, toothpaste was developed in 1873 and sold in jars – but has been squeezed out of disposable tubes since the 1890s. There are a number of companies selling tablets (Treehugger has reviewed many of them and Bite came out on top) but Lindsay McCormick's story is so interesting. She is not a chemist but tells Treehugger that she took a series of chemistry courses she learned about from Reddit and consulted with many dentists and hygienists.

My first thought was that Proctor & Gamble and Colgate probably employ thousands of chemists to formulate wonderful new compounds that do wonders for our teeth, and how can someone just mix up their own powders and buy a tablet machine to crank these things out?

Crest package

Lloyd Alter

However, when you look up the ingredients on a tube of Crest, you have fluoride, and everything else is just a mild abrasive (hydrated silica), flavoring, emulsifiers to mix it all up, and surfactants that let oil and water mix (the sodium lauryl sulfate). This isn't chemistry but compounding, mixing different ingredients together in a gooey paste. Some of the chemicals, like sodium lauryl sulfate, are concerning; I look for a shampoo that doesn't contain it because it can be a skin irritant, and here we are, putting it in our mouths. And saccharin? It can cause allergic reactions.

Bite Ingredients

Bite

McCormick compounds a different mix; she uses calcium carbonate (limestone) as a mild abrasive instead of hydrated silica (sand and sodium carbonate), which she tells Treehugger doesn't work well without moisture. Instead of fluoride, she adds nano-hydroxyapatite, a non-toxic alternative with a study behind it.

Using the Bite tablets feels different at first when you have spent your life using toothpaste, but it doesn't take more than a day or two to find it feels perfectly normal and after a week, you wonder why you ever used toothpaste. Less mess, less waste, and your mouth feels just as clean and fresh.

Dental Floss
Standard vs Bite.

Lloyd Alter

The dental floss is another interesting story. It comes in a lovely little glass bottle and is made from polylactic acid or PLA, which is made from fermented plant starches from corn or sugar cane and is often used as a "green" substitute for other plastics. It is considered by many to be a bioplastic, but it has a lot of issues and we are not fans. Given that PLA is a thermoplastic polyester, and given that all dental floss is single-use and disposable, this creates issues for McCormick, who is running a plastic-free, zero-waste company. It's a problem for me too; I have long been wondering about what the solution to this is.

Poor McCormick ties herself up in knots in a long post trying to justify the use of PLA and makes a very good case, even trying to convince us that it is not a plastic at all (this was really clever, going back to the origin of the word. I am not convinced but I enjoyed the discussion). In the end, she sort of gives up and writes:

"Is PLA the best option we have right now for dental floss? Yep, that's why we chose it. Are we actively looking into options that are better? Yep, PHA is something that's on our radar among other options. However, our teeth need flossin' now, and PLA is the best we have."

It's actually remarkable how hard McCormick works to justify PLA, clearly listing every objection anyone could have and addressing them all. She certainly convinced me that it is the best option available now.

The fact is, most dental floss is made from nylon or other fossil fuel-based plastics, and much of it is coated with perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), basically Teflon, to make it slide. Almost all of it comes in containers made of mixed substances that make them marginally recyclable. Just eliminating all that packaging is a huge step forward.

Bite Packaging

Bite Packaging/ Photo Lloyd Alter

Which brings us back to the packaging and the business model. Everything is delivered in a cardboard box, all the bottles with the products wrapped in unbleached kraft paper, all of which you buy just once. It's a service as well as a product; $60 gets you a four-month supply, delivered in paper packaging. I expect complaints in comments that this is really expensive, and it is; mass production by huge companies using cheap ingredients bought by the trainload is really good at driving down prices. This isn't for everyone, but it is the kind of thinking that we need if we are going to have healthier products and get to zero waste. Perhaps someday we will be able to buy them in bulk at the local health food store.

What we have here isn't just a tooth tablet, it is a different way of addressing the problem from the ground up, asking "what if we could design a system without waste?" and realizing that you have to redesign the product too, and even the way you sell it. At some point, when all the externalities of making fossil fuel into toothpaste tubes and dealing with the waste are priced into a tube of toothpaste, Bite might look cheap.