For Jake Felser and Ollie Haas, the toothbrush is too central to personal hygiene to be treated as a throwaway.
Recent graduates of Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, they see a business opportunity in rescuing the toothbrush from the heap of throwaway plastic products: a line of brushes with replaceable heads and handles made of wood or aluminum that last for months, if not years.
ReBrush, as the new line of toothbrushes is called, is the latest product out of a Boston-based design studio called LittleBonsai that Felser and Haas started after graduating from Olin in 2011. While targeting toothbrushes might seem like a quixotic venture, Haas said developing a more ecofriendly brush was an attainable goal.
“We all have a toothbrush next to us at least twice a day. That makes this problem of this product very tangible,” Haas said. “It’s an obvious problem with an obvious solution.”
The company will begin manufacturing the toothbrushes next month, with delivery expected in January; customers can reserve brushes online at LittleBonsai’s website . The company doesn’t yet have a deal to distribute its products in stores.
ReBrush comes in two styles: The wood one, called ReBrush Maple, is made of sustainable hardwood; an aluminum handle, called ReBrush Element, comes in blue, red, green, or black . For now customers can only buy “year packs” which include one handle with four disposable heads; the Element pack costs $25 and the Maple is $30.
Still that’s a hefty premium compared with a year’s worth of disposable brushes, which costs around $10 to $12. Although the American Dental Association recommends switching brushes three to four times annually, research from Procter & Gamble shows the average consumer buys fewer than that each year.
The market is dominated by consumer product giants such as Procter & Gamble — whose toothbrush category had $860 million in sales in fiscal year 2011-2012. Other players include Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson & Johnson. All three companies have sustainability initiatives across their product categories.
John San Marco, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC, said the audience for ecoconscious toothbrushes is still probably too small for those corporations to develop a boutique product.
“The Procter & Gambles, the Colgates of the world, when they come out with an innovation, it’s predicated on the fact that it’s supposed to move the needle for them [financially],” he said. “It makes the most economic sense for these companies to focus sustainability on larger categories, like tissues.”
San Marco predicts ReBrush’s appeal will likely be limited to the type of ecoconscious consumer who shops at Whole Foods Market. “The entire consumer audience isn’t willing to pay more for sustainable products, but there is a core group of consumers that’s willing to pay for a product that’s better for the environment,” he said.
There are other boutique firms trying to make a more environmentally friendly toothbrush. One is Waltham-based Preserve, which makes household products out of recycled plastic; its toothbrush products include an envelope to mail back the old one, which Preserve will recycle properly.
The ReBrush models still use disposable plastic heads that consumers throw away. So far, Haas said, LittleBonsai has been unable to design a recyclable brush head.
“The bristles and the heads on toothbrushes are attached together in a way that makes it very difficult for them to come apart. When you toss it out you have two materials attached [to one another] that make it not recyclable,” Haas said. “But we feel we are reducing the amount of plastic that gets thrown away.”
Preserve does claim another edge: that its toothbrush heads do a better job cleaning than mass-marketed brands.
Kellie McElhaney, who specializes in sustainability marketing at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley, said ReBrush’s lack of cleaning advantage over disposable brushes may undercut its appeal.
“If it was the next big thing in dentistry and it was sustainable, that would be [better] — sustainability can’t be the lead attribute,” she said.
Still, LittleBonsai is in one respect following a successful business model championed by Procter & Gamble’s Gillette unit: selling razor handles for little or no money, and creating a profitable repeat business for replacement heads.
That analogy occurred to Andrea Migliassi, 40, when she helped test ReBrush prototypes. A self-proclaimed “Cambridge liberal,” she said LittleBonsai could get consumers to buy its products by emphasizing the razor comparison.
“One of the parallels I drew was to the razor — I have a razor blade that’s a handle and then you have to get a replacement blade,” Migliassi said. “When I drew that parallel it made a lot of sense — like ‘Oh, you can do that with this toothbrush.’ ”