Product Design

Shit That Breaks: Don’t Buy Disposable Electric Toothbrushes

I did something stupid last week: I bought a four-pack of disposable electric toothbrushes.

In my defense, retail stores at this time of year make me dizzy. Towers of bow-wrapped packages. I must’ve been distracted. In fact, I blame Bing Crosby himself—I was dreaming of teeth as white as Christmas.

When I got home and opened up the package, I saw that each brush had a battery built in—I unscrewed the battery compartment to discover that the battery housing can’t be pulled out.

In theory, the battery lasts only as long as the toothbrush head is supposed to (about three months). So when the battery dies, on schedule, you throw the whole unit out.

But in reality? The reviews of these toothbrushes are full of dead battery complaints. Five uses. Three weeks. A month and a half. Some people even find their brushes dead on arrival.

Replacing the battery on an Oral B Pulsar disposable electric toothbrush

We’ve got problems with built-in batteries. When manufacturers bind a battery to the electronic components it powers—as in the FitBit Flex, the MacBook Pro with Retina, and many generations of iPods—they effectively limit the lifetime of the device to the lifetime of the battery. And batteries are consumables, usually the first piece of any electronic gizmo to die. This is worse yet in a product like a toothbrush, which could easily sit in retail inventory for years—the battery draining into the damp warehouse air.

My mini-toothbrush debacle just goes to show how easy it is to accidentally buy electronics that are designed for the dump. By virtue of their design, these four toothbrushes are destined to become e-waste—quickly. And more and more products like them find their way onto store shelves every single day. E-waste isn’t just TVs and microwaves anymore. It’s toothbrushes and birthday cards, too.

My saving grace is, as always, the Internet. An intrepid DIY YouTuber has figured out how to replace the battery anyway, with a sharp knife and some gumption. When my toothbrush batteries die, I’ll give it a go. And when I get rid of my brushes for good, I’ll send them to a reputable e-waste collector.

But you can learn from the error of my ways: don’t let Bing Crosby—or anyone else—serenade you into buying disposable electric toothbrushes.

You know what else you shouldn’t buy? A FitBit.