It began with an e-mail from an eight-year-old boy who liked a product called Kid's Floss, and asked the manufacturer a simple question: "Isn't there a way to make it with less plastic?"
That query sent the owners of Locin Industries Ltd., a Vancouver-based maker and distributor of personal care products, on a four year journey to offer North Americans a way to reduce the volume of plastic that ends up in landfills, lakes and oceans. EcoBrushes and EcoFlossers are biodegradable and their handles are made from a mix of corn, wheat, tapioca and potatoes that is designed to decompose into organic material.
"There was something about getting that question from someone under the age of 10 and having to come up with an answer," recalls Jane Nicol, marketing director of Clean Idea, a unit of Locin. "It was certainly motivating."
A family-owned business owned by Ms. Nicol and her sister, Sue Collins, and co-managed with their respective spouses, Brad Collins and Andrew Horembala, the company began pursuing the idea after Mr. Collins read about advances in consumer-products packaging in the form of biodegradable films for wrapping foods and vegetable-based containers.
"I thought, 'Gee, wouldn't it be great if we could use something like that for our oral care products?'" recalls Mr. Collins, who is vice-president in charge of manufacturing. "That's when the work began."
Finding materials that would be durable and not break down (nor disintegrate in someone's mouth) took more than two years. "We had to make sure the toothbrush would accept the bristles and wouldn't break," says Mr. Collins. "They had to be able to run through the machines properly, that sort of thing."
After scouring the market, Clean Idea invested in manufacturing technology from the United States and sourced the raw materials in that market and Canada. Mr. Collins won't say how much the firm spent on research and development, except that it was "a lot. But we saw it as an investment in our future.
"We didn't think we'd make millions of dollars," says Mr. Collins. "But we would like to lead the trend. Most consumer-products companies will slowly but surely start greening their sourcing and manufacturing methods. We'd like to be at the forefront and set our feet in the right direction for the planet."
Since last fall, EcoBrushes and EcoFlossers have been available at Shoppers Drug Mart, London Drugs, Care in Store and, in the U.S., Amazon.com. The products, which are manufactured in Taiwan, are also distributed to dentists by wholesalers.
Other hybrid products on the market are made with a mixture of petroleum plastic with an additive so they will break down faster than regular brushes. "But our product does not utilize petroleum plastic," says Mr. Collins.
While the bristles must be made of plastic to meet dentists' specifications, the toothbrush handle will decompose in several months. The handle that holds the dental floss will also decompose, although the floss itself will not. In a commercial composter, the pellets that are used as raw material in the handles will break down in about 180 days. "But in the finished form it will take longer," admits Ms. Nicol.
"What it is made of, and will turn into, is always better than petroleum plastic products," says Mr. Collins. Adds Ms. Nicol: "They will never disappear. They're permanent."
While plastic is cheap, it is also virtually indestructible. Canadians toss out an estimated 100 million toothbrushes annually.
"A toothbrush needs to last the life of the product," says Ms. Nicol. "It doesn't need to last forever."
Research on the effects of plastic leaching into water and food was one of the motivating factors for the company. "Certain things such as BPA (bisphenol A), phthalates and estrogen-mimicking chemicals are affecting flora and fauna. Even before they break down, there are nasty environmental impacts," says Mr. Collins.
With the proliferation of so-called "green" products, it's not surprising that some consumers have become cynical. "Consumers want a product that really works," says Mr. Collins. "And they may be prepared to pay a little more for a green product, but not a lot more, especially in these times."
Thus far, Locin's Clean Idea has sold several hundred thousand EcoBrushes. "Our toothbrushes are priced right. They're priced head-to-head with leading brands and maybe even under them," says Mr. Collins, adding that the brushes retail for about $2.99. "Once they give it a try, they will stick with it."
EcoBrushes has turned into an opportunity to get into a new product line and put Clean Idea head-to-head against bigger, established manufacturers such as Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble (makers of Oral-B brushes) and Johnson & Johnson (Reach). Until their introduction, the firm earned its revenue from non-Canadian made beauty products and over-the-counter cough and cold remedies.
Now the products have become part of the company's mission to position itself in the greening of the consumer products market. "There is a sea change happening," says Ms. Nicol. "Consumers look at everything from the packaging to the shopping bags they carry. You can see it at the checkout. People are bringing their own bags. Who would have thought that could happen 10 years ago? But it did."
While the firm is a niche player in a big industry, Ms. Nicol is confident that it can differentiate itself and be a model for other small companies. "We have this point of difference, but they [large competitors]haven't made that change," says Ms. Nicol, adding that Clean Idea's target is 1 per cent of the toothbrush market.
"It's one of those times when it's an advantage to be a small company," she adds. "We are fairly agile and can make decisions quickly."