There can’t be many habits that large swathes of the planet do twice a day without fail, something so ingrained in our collective routine it barely registers. But for Lindsay McCormick, Founder & CEO of Bite Toothpaste Bits, our daily tooth brushing was the key to solving a much bigger issue. Namely, waste on a massive scale that could be tackled by simply rethinking the everyday behaviours that we take for granted.
“I was travelling all the time for work. I was a TV producer, so travelling all over the US to film TV shows, and I was going through those little plastic toothpaste tubes and I just envisioned them in a landfill somewhere. I was like, wait a minute. I don't use plastic water bottles or do any of that stuff, but here I am throwing out plastic. I thought, this is crazy, so I wanted an alternative.
“I started looking into what was on the market, and I didn't like the ingredients or I didn't like how it tasted or how it was packaged. So I was like, ok, I want to make my own toothpaste, and it was really just to make for my own trips for myself.”
The personal project quickly magnified in size when she realised the scale of the issue. The planet’s twice daily dental care was contributing to a waste mountain of epic proportions: “There's a statistic that says 1.5 billion toothpaste tubes end up in landfill every year, and that's enough plastic that if you melted it down it would fill the Empire State Building 50 times every year,” she says. “Our actions every day really do add up.”
It was, she realised, time for a radical rethink on the subject of toothpaste, a product that’s been around in its familiar form since the 1890s. Did it actually need to be in a tube? Did it even need to be a paste? Lindsay’s research told her otherwise.
“I do not have a background in oral care or anything, but I started taking open source online chemistry classes. It was really funny, if you’d have told me in high school that I'd be doing this I would have thought no, you're crazy. But I started taking any class I could in chemistry and reading up on dental studies from all around the world; many of them are posted online. And then talking to any dentist or dental hygienist who would give me the time of day.”
I really need to start questioning what I'm putting into my body twice a day, every day
Her diligence led to a clear insight: toothpaste could be more sustainable, more ethical and less toxic if it was reformulated and waste was designed out of the product; a key tenet of the circular economy – so, no more paste in tubes, but tablets packaged in a reusable container using organic ingredients that ditched unnecessary chemicals and shunned plastic.
“It's just one of those things we do, but when you lift the curtain off you’re like, wait a minute. Why are we putting it in plastic? And the majority of ingredients in toothpaste are water and glycerine anyway. Why are we putting all these chemicals in our mouths? Something that really woke me up was the idea that you can take medicine by putting it under your tongue and it will go into your body if you take it that way. And here I am brushing my teeth with things like sodium lauryl sulfate and artificial dyes and flavours, and it's all going under my tongue! I thought, wow, I really need to start questioning what I'm putting into my body twice a day, every day.”
The only thing to do, she decided, was to invest in some high quality ingredients and create a home laboratory in her dining room for research and development. The US has strict guidelines laid down by its Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which must be adhered to in terms of manufacturing, ingredients and operations to get its official seal of approval. It took months of daily trial and error before she got to a formulation that met her own high standards as well as theirs.
The resulting product, Bite Toothpaste Bits, is toothpaste in tablet form that uses fresh natural ingredients that are gluten-free, vegan-friendly and without harmful chemicals. Biting down on a tablet then brushing as usual with a wet toothbrush triggers the foaming action. Distribution is managed via a subscription-only service that utilises existing transport routes to minimise carbon emissions. A one-month-only bottle contains 64 tablets and costs $12 (US); the 4-month subscription service comes in at $30 and sends the initial month of tablets in a reusable glass jar. Tablets for subsequent months come as refills in compostable pouches wrapped in packaging made from recycled newspapers, neatly swerving the plastic waste dilemma.
After 2 years as a start-up operating out of Lindsay’s home, in August last year operations finally switched to a dedicated manufacturing facility that aligns with her principals. Judging by consumer reviews and media coverage so far, Bite is a game-changer with a growing fan-base. And it’s not just consumers that it’s made an impression on, it seems the more established players in the oral hygiene industry have sat up and taken note, if recent trial products are anything to go by.
Lindsay is sanguine about the possibility of imitators. “When it comes to all these big companies starting to push in a sustainable direction that's really exciting to me, because I started this as an advocate. I wanted a way to solve a problem because I think it's really tragic, so I'm thankful that they are waking up. Of course it makes it more competitive, but I'm really glad they're tackling the packaging problem, but they're still using really terrible ingredients. Are they jumping on the bandwagon? Yes, but at least it's a start.”
She adds: “The optimist in me says there will still be room for a small brand. It just makes us continually have to innovate and do things right and not cut corners. We’ll just be the best we can be knowing the big guys are going to start entering our space.”