Dear Recyclebank: Dental floss has no chance of being recycled. What is a healthy and green way to floss? Water pick? Wooden toothpick? –E. M.
Dear E. M.: Floss does pose a conundrum to those of us who want to minimize waste. Both the packaging of most floss, and the floss itself, are made of a combination of mixed materials in forms that are too small to be processed by recycling machinery. Additionally, floss filament gets tangled in the machinery at recycling facilities (MRFs), which slows down the recycling process of other materials. You may be tempted to resuse your floss in order to conserve, but the strategy of reusing floss is no good here because you don’t want to reintroduce bacteria and plaque that you’ve just removed, and germs can stay trapped in the floss fibers, especially as they fray. The American Dental Association directly cautions against reusing floss.
No matter the method, flossing will create some amount of waste, so what options do we have to reduce our footprint? Let’s discuss alternatives to traditional floss:
Most of the dental floss on the market is made from nylon coated in wax, but you can also find floss made from silk, which is biodegradable and can be composted; try RADIUS. You can also minimize one part of floss waste by buying floss that is not packaged in the typical plastic box, which has a metal component that makes it a mixed material and therefore not recyclable.
In general, you should avoid floss picks, as the plastic in the pick itself more than outweighs the amount of floss they might save, and they also present the same reuse problem discussed above. If you’re heart is set on them, try to find a biodegradable option.
Wooden toothpicks can also be composted, but keep in mind that they tend to be less effective at cleaning deeply between your teeth than floss would be. You’ll likely want to reserve wooden toothpicks for removing pieces of food, rather than intensive teeth cleaning.
Oral irrigators (also known as water picks) are handheld tools, similar in shape to an electric toothbrush, that direct jets of water toward the hard-to-reach places in your mouth that dental floss would ordinarily target. These devices use water and electricity, and there’s not yet enough research to determine whether that makes for an overall energy and resource savings over floss. However, oral irrigators are reusable and can last for a long time.