Bamboo toothbrushes give kids their smiles back

By Chelsea Quackenbush
Buckner International

It started as a simple tooth brushing demonstration for a group of children in Guatemala on a Buckner mission trip in 2010.

With no sinks or running water, Eric Cope held the trash bag for kids to spit in. It became very apparent how serious their dental issues were. They didn’t have toothbrushes; their teeth were rotting.

At that moment, Eric was struck by how preventable their diseases were. He calls that moment ‘the spark to light a flame.’

After traveling to Guatemala several times – to adopt a child and to serve on mission trips – Eric and his wife, Geri, formed Smile Squared, a for-profit company with a giving component that sends bamboo toothbrushes to children around the globe who can’t afford them. Since November 2011, they’ve given about 7,100 toothbrushes.

Their business model is a one-for-one, meaning that for every toothbrush purchased through their company, they donate a toothbrush to a child in need.

Sustainable smiles

Eric said that as they started research, they found frightening statistics on plastic toothbrushes.

“Around 50 million pounds of toothbrushes are clogging up landfills in the United States each year,” he said. “I got a mental picture in my mind of the dumps in Guatemala and in my mind, and I knew that was something we didn’t want to contribute to.”

The Copes, neither of whom have a background in dentistry, discovered bamboo toothbrushes. The biodegradable bamboo appealed to their desire to be eco-conscious. Bamboo is grass, not wood; it’s harvested in a sustainable way and is a renewable resource. The toothbrushes are biodegradable, and the bristles and packaging are recyclable. The Smile Squared toothbrushes look like a basic, classic toothbrush, but they’re better for the environment.

Overcoming obstacles

The Copes ran into a huge problem with their supplier in China. After the first shipment was sent to the U.S., they received a discouraging phone call – their shipment would not be allowed into the States due to customs laws.

They went back and forth with the U.S. government until finally they called Buckner and asked if they could have them shipped directly to Mexico. And Buckner agreed.

Negotiating contracts proved to be a huge roadblock in the pursuit of their goal.

“It was extremely discouraging at times,” Geri said. “At one point, we got really bad news, bad feedback from two consultants – one of whom was a retired marketing executive with a St Louis-based Fortune 500 company, who thought the business model and idea was terrible. He said that the only “green” anyone was interested in was the green in their wallet ... And then two days later, Dexton Shores (regional director of Buckner ministries in Mexico, Peru and the Domincan Republic) sent photos of children getting their toothbrushes and it reignited that ‘this is why we do this.’

“It was a divine appointment that we would have received those pictures of the distribution at the dental clinic at that time.”

They found a legitimate supplier and Eric went to China to sign a contract and make sure the facilities were ethical and safe.

Smile Squared is working with other organizations besides Buckner and partners with dentists and churches throughout the country. They are having conversations with national retailers to sell Smile Squared toothbrushes.

They also plan give toothbrushes to vulnerable kids in the U.S.

“The contribution of Smile Squared toothbrushes to Buckner Mexico has been a huge blessing to our Buckner programs, as well as to alliances that we have with government and private orphanages,” Shores said. “The toothbrushes have enabled us to provide children with a new toothbrush every time we have a dental hygiene class. It’s amazing how a new toothbrush can bring a smile to a child’s face. For some, it was the first toothbrush they ever owned.”

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