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How Dental Students Are Turning Toothbrushes Into Treasures

Tana Weingartner
Dental hygiene student Suzanne Yorke stands with a 10 pound bag of dental waste ready to be recycled into benches and picnic tables.

Students at UC's Blue Ash campus have an odd request: They want your old toothbrush.Suzanne Yorke is holding a ten pound bag of consumer dental products that would normally wind up in the trash can... worn out toothbrushes, used toothpaste tubes, empty floss containers. The dental hygiene student is behind an effort to repurpose these hard to recycle items.

"This is just from the past couple of weeks," Yorke tells Cyndee Stegeman, chair of the Dental Hygiene Department, to exclamations of "Oh my gosh!"

"I have a background in biology and I transferred into dental hygiene," says Yorke. "One thing I noticed right away is in order to keep things clean and safe, there's a lot of waste. Every patient that comes in, we have brand new barriers and brand new items, so there's a lot of waste naturally in dentistry. I thought, 'what would be some way that we could mitigate that waste?' And I thought through collecting home care dental items and then recycling those."

Yorke and her classmates send the used items to a company called Terracycle which turns them into benches, picnic tables, and even playgrounds. The company pays around $2 per pound. The students aim to raise at least $100. That's enough to pay for 10 free X-rays for patients at UC Blue Ash's low-cost dental hygiene clinic.

"To me it's such a no brainer," says Yorke. "All of these items were going to be pitched anyway and so we're basically taking essentially nothing and creating something out of it. Ten patients next year are going to have free x-rays that wouldn't have been able to have them otherwise. That to me feels like a real positive outcome from collecting this waste."

The Blue Ash clinic is the largest of its kind in Ohio. Students are required to recruit a certain number of patients. Others are referred there if they have trouble affording care.

Yorke says it's a misconception to think a few old toothbrushes won't amount to much.

"Every single person bringing in their old toothbrush or their old, empty toothpaste tube or floss container really generates quite a lot of waste and quite a lot of opportunity for revenue that we can put into access to patient care."

She says the program has already sent in more than 8,200 items. Donations come in from students, faculty, staff and patients. They've gotten so many Terracycle sent them a bigger collection box.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
June Sheatzley says, "I have a real thing with recycling." She was delighted to find a place to recycle her old brushes and packaging.

June Sheatzley likes the clinic's teaching model and helps students learn by volunteering to be a patient. Walking into the clinic carrying three bags of toothbrushes, packaging, and empty tubes, she says she's very excited about the recycling program.

"I'm really kind of OCD, I guess, with recycling," she laughs. "[These items] have just been accumulating and I've been thinking I'll find a place, so I was really delighted the last time I was here on campus to see the recycling display."

Sheatzley scoffs at the question of whether recycling dental products, especially old toothbrushes, is icky or perhaps might be considered gross by some people, or even hazardous waste.

"My toothbrushes aren't icky! Only if you're using it with Clorox to scrub [the bathroom], and then it sanitizes it. Or if you're scrubbing the grout in the bathroom and using some kind of cleanser, and then it's getting sanitized anyway. I just don't think of oral hygiene as being icky."

How To Donate

Used dental supplies may be placed in the collection bin outside the Dental Hygiene Clinic at UC Blue Ash College inWalters Hall, first floor. Questions may be directed to Bethany Smith at (513) 745-5635.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.