Today, living without plastic would be almost impossible in everyday life. The world’s plastic production is increasing rapidly, creating massive amounts of plastic waste; thus, problems related to plastic waste are occurring everywhere. South Korea is often characterized as “The Trash Kingdom” or “Plastic Korea” due to the prominent amounts of plastic waste generated every year. The annual plastic waste per capita is nearly 100 pounds, placing the country as the third-biggest waste producer after England and the United States. Yet, the problems around plastic waste extend far beyond Korea, but it is estimated that by 2040, the amount of plastic worldwide could reach around 1.3 billion tons. The social impacts surrounding the immense litter are distressing; the microplastics produced during decomposition often end up in foods and tap water, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals emitted from plastic waste can cause reproductive disorders and cancer. Plastics' initial use for convenience is now shifting to becoming a detriment to the environment and health.
Surprisingly, the toothbrush, an essential household item used in our everyday lives, is one of the leading products that contribute to the astounding amount of plastic we throw away every year. If the world’s population followed the standard advice to replace their toothbrush every three months, we would dispose approximately of 29.4 billion toothbrushes annually, equivalent to 600 thousand tons of waste. Toothbrushes are also considered especially difficult to recycle due to the small and sturdy parts in toothbrushes; most small plastic pieces get incinerated or end up in landfills where they take up to 500 years to biodegrade. Therefore, by having these problems regarding plastic waste in mind and recognizing the potential of a business solution, a dentist named Geunwoo Park initiated the social venture company Dr. Noah and began developing biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes as a substitution for plastic ones. Park wanted to reduce plastic waste through his business solution and wanted to increase the income of residents in impoverished areas, including locations where bamboos grew. In terms of business management, Park thought ahead of most Korean organizations contemplating environmental, social, and governance (ESG). He sought to create consonance between the growth of staff and the company.
Currently, Dr. Noah has manufactured nearly 1 million bamboo toothbrushes, resulting in reductions of plastic waste by almost 17,000 kilograms and an increase in the income of formerly impoverished communities. Its production has cultivated a work environment that promotes efficiency and balance through autonomy, delegated decision-making, and a growth mindset. Dr. Noah elucidates on how companies can successfully apply ESG to their management. The main advantages of bamboo toothbrushes are the ability to biodegrade much faster than a plastic brush. Although the bristles on bamboo toothbrushes are made with nylon, a material that does not biodegrade quickly and has no developed alternatives, the environmental footprint it endures is much smaller. Moreover, the population is growing interested in zero-waste products, including the generation MZ, whose consumption patterns are shifting to greater awareness of the environment, thus making increased purchases based on personal beliefs and values.
Furthermore, the impacts of bamboo toothbrushes go beyond the environmental impacts. The significant economic and social implications of bamboo toothbrushes are the advancement in the income levels of residents residing in low-income regions. In 2008, while Chinese bamboo producers received $110 to $130 per ton of bamboo, Vietnamese bamboo obtained $30 to $40 per ton. This occurrence was due to the low demand for building materials and glasses in Vietnam. Yet, the impact of Dr. Noah’s work in increasing the demand for raw materials from suppliers in low-developed regions of Vietnam to provide sustenance for a product with high added value allowed local suppliers to raise their price, therefore leading to increasing resident income. Today, in Thanh Hóa, Vietnam’s largest bamboo-producing region, the residents earn a monthly income of around $67; it is estimated that approximately 1,350 poor bamboo farmers have managed to reach the median income level.
Dr. Noah’s sales reached nearly 1.1 billion won in just half of 2021. The social and financial values are entirely consolidated with their social business model; as the sales increase more rapidly, the greater the social achievements are fulfilled. However, Dr. Noah does not hope to be the company that sells the most toothbrushes in the world. Instead, they wish to maximize their social impact by becoming the company that inspires every plastic toothbrush company in the world to produce its bamboo toothbrush. The environmental effects that Colgate, the world’s number one seller of toothbrushes, could undergo if it sold eco-friendly products is substantial. Park remarks there is nothing more rewarding than incentivizing global companies to take green action.
Since 2016, Dr. Noah has consistently been carrying the path of sustainable ESG management to aim for social innovation and social impact. The company's continual efforts to conduct new research and develop into a more socially valuable company have led to social, economic, and environmental success. In the future, they will explore more ways to quantify the impact generated from its supply chain, especially in how much the partnership has improved the Vietnamese bamboo farmers' and their families’ quality of life. Today, we stand amongst the growing interest in social enterprises. Dr. Noah provides constant inspiration for entrepreneurs who dream of starting new social enterprises that take social responsibility in all levels of ESG.