Here’s How Single-Use Floss Picks Are Greenwashed

Those “eco-friendly” disposable flossers people overpay for?

They may not even be good for the planet.

Our scientific sources…

Our research…

And our scientific reviewer…

All agree: there’s a lot of greenwashing going on.

The best eco-friendly flosser is actually a reusable floss holder, like the Element.

This evidence-based article is supported by 10 scientific sources. Written by Artem Cheprasov and reviewed by Isabel Garcia-Hermosa, Dphil. Last updated: Feb. 18, 2022.

Cartoon
Methods
Results
Deception
“Eco-Friendly”
Limitations
Takeaways

Introduction

Click the cartoon to expand it.

A cartoon about greenwashing

This is part 3 of our investigative series into the way disposable flossers affect you, and the planet.

Don’t miss the other parts:

  • Part 3 (Greenwashing): You Are Here

In this part:

We sought to estimate the frequency with which single-use floss picks were marketed as being “eco-friendly”.

Moreover:

We wanted to figure out if “eco-friendly” disposable floss picks cost more and if the premium was justified.

Methods

Data

Note: for obvious legal reasons, we can’t reveal some of the details of this investigation.

As of this writing, Amazon.com categorizes the majority of single-use floss picks into the “Dental Floss” category.

A few are classified under the “Dental Picks” category.

We examined the top 100 best-selling products in both categories in August-September of 2021.

Of the 200 products between both categories:

48 were disposable (single-use) floss picks.

The rest were a mix of floss, interdental brushes, and so on.

Of these 48 products, nine clearly marketed themselves as being “eco-friendly”.

How so?

Between them, they used the following terms in their content:

  • No plastic
  • (100%) Eco-friendly
  • (100%) Biodegradable
  • Biorenewable
  • Sustainable
  • Natural
  • Zero-waste
  • Compostable
  • Vegan
  • Plant-based

In other words:

Almost a fifth of the best-selling disposable flosser products presented themselves as being environmentally friendly.

As you’ll soon learn, the use of the terms above was questionable or completely erroneous.

But first:

Let’s find out if eco-friendly disposable floss picks cost more than regular ones.

Results

You Overpay By 43%

Perhaps not surprisingly, the “eco-friendly” floss picks on Amazon cost more than typical flossers.

The average price of the 39 “non-eco-friendly” flossers was:

$5.45 per 100 flossers.

The average price of the 9 “eco-friendly” disposable floss picks was:

$7.81 per 100 floss picks.

That’s a 43% markup.

Is the additional price worth it, though?

You’re Being Misled

We’re all for buying less.

That means less waste and more savings.

Savings we can tap to support truly eco-friendly products.

Products that may be honestly priced higher due to unavoidable economies of scale.

So we can argue that a 43% markup for eco-friendly products is justified. It’s a relatively small price to pay if we’re truly helping the planet.

But are we actually helping the environment in this case?

Or are we being misled?

Well, let’s take a look.

All of the “eco-friendly” flossers that we found were made out of one of the following:

  • Corn starch and polylactic acid (PLA)
    • 4 best sellers
  • Wheat straw and PLA
    • 2 best sellers
  • Corn starch and polypropylene (PP)
    • 3 best sellers

Let’s examine how “eco-friendly” they are, in order.

PLA – The Perennial Greenwashing Favorite

We’ll begin with PLA, which was found in 6 different products.

PLA is a “bioplastic”.

It’s derived from renewable resources, like corn starch.1,2

At least one manufacturer claimed that their PLA-based floss pick contained “no plastic”.

Technically-speaking, that’s a stretch.

The ISO is an international organization of experts that sets all sorts of technical standards. 3

The ISO defines a plastic as a:

“…Material which contains as an essential ingredient a high polymer and which, at some stage in its processing into finished products, can be shaped by flow”. 4(p472)

Basically:

A plastic is a moldable material that’s made out of many identical chemical units.

Crudely speaking:

You can think of a plastic as a moldable chain made out of identical links.

By this technical definition:

PLA is very much a plastic. 5

So a claim of “no plastic” is technically wrong.

Other manufacturers claimed that their PLA-based flossers were 100% eco-friendly, biodegradable, or compostable.

How true is this?

First:

The production of PLA is an energy-intensive process. In fact, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the production of PLA emits more greenhouse gases than many “dirty” plastics made out of petroleum. 6

Second:

PLA is technically compostable. However, this composting largely occurs in specialized industrial facilities. Facilities that your neighborhood may not even have access to. Moreover, these facilities require a lot of resources and energy to build and power. 7

Third:

While PLA can be recycled the EPA says it’s rarely recycled in practice. 8 So once the PLA ends up in a landfill, it behaves much like any petroleum-based plastic.

In other words:

PLA breaks down into harmful microplastics that pollute our land and water. 7

Therefore:

Are PLA-based disposable floss picks 100% eco-friendly, biodegradable, or compostable as claimed?

Or is this greenwashing?

The Corn Starch Euphemism

Oh, and there’s one other interesting note here.

Five of the products claimed that their PLA flossers were made with corn starch. Sounds nice and natural, right?

The thing is:

Corn starch is used to make PLA. But PLA is nowhere near as natural as corn starch.

Therefore:

We don’t know if saying “made with corn starch” really means “we turned corn starch into PLA”.

Of course, it would seem repetitive to claim a PLA floss pick is made with PLA and corn starch. But that’s just part of greenwashing, isn’t it? It adds an easy veneer of eco-friendliness.

In the end:

Unless a manufacturer provides evidence for the composition of their product, we can’t be sure if they’re being deceptive or not.

“Dirty” Plastics in “Eco-Friendly” Flossers

The other 3 products were made out of a mix of corn starch and polypropylene (PP).

PP is a traditional “dirty” petroleum-based plastic. 9

Believe it or not:

You could legitimately argue that PP is eco-friendlier than alternative materials in specific use cases.

For example:

EPA data shows that the production of recycled PP produces relatively small amounts of greenhouse gases compared to many other plastics. 8

Yet the manufacturers of the PP floss picks never said they used recycled PP for their products.

Furthermore, they never defined what they meant by “eco-friendly”. So we don’t know if they were talking about lower emissions, or something else entirely.

Without a clear understanding of what they meant, we can’t possibly judge the veracity of their eco-friendly claims.

Moreover:

All of these flossers claimed to be made with a mix of PP and “corn starch”.

As we just went over, we have no idea whether or not “made with corn starch and PP” really means “made with PLA and PP”.

There Can Never Be an “Eco-Friendly” Disposable Flosser

In the end, an eco-friendly disposable floss pick is—in our opinion—an oxymoron.

Even if such flossers were made out of 100% wild grass they wouldn’t be eco-friendly.

That’s because, by their very design and nature, single-use flossers must always:

  • Rely on a never-ending supply of resources for their creation
  • Produce an endless stream of waste
  • Need a constant supply of packaging material for shipping
  • Ceaselessly create transportation-related pollution

How can this minimizable strain on our resources be eco-friendly?

Minimizable because there are alternatives, like well-made floss holders.

Limitations

Our sample size of the 48 best-selling disposable floss picks was limited to those sold on Amazon. While we think the sample size is decent, future research should focus on other sales avenues. Those outside of Amazon. Future research should also look into niche floss picks that may be found only on the maker’s website.

Conclusion

In the end, our point here isn’t to criticize manufacturers for using words like “eco-friendly” and “sustainable”.

These words, in the right context, may be perfectly legitimate.

Our criticism lies in two areas:

  1. These words are often used in a vague or general manner.
  2. The manufacturers typically offer little to no evidence for their “green” claims.

Furthermore, we know full-well that there is no perfect solution.

We completely understand that the creation of any product is a strain on the planet to some degree.

But that doesn’t mean people should stop flossing as a result of that. Good health is a must, after all.

Therefore, the point here is to promote better, eco-friendlier, alternatives to single-use flossers.

All else equal, a well-built and eco-friendly reusable floss holder will always be better for the planet than single-use flossers.

How so?

Its creation and use requires fewer resources as compared to the amount of disposable flossers you’d need over its lifetime.

3 Key Takeaways

  • You pay 43% more for “eco-friendly” floss picks
  • Claims of sustainability are vague, general, and come with no proof
  • The eco-friendliest alternative is actually a well-made floss holder

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  1. Poly(lactic Acid) Polymer – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. Accessed September 15, 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/chemistry/poly-lactic-acid-polymer
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