Cutting Landfill Waste with Brush with Bamboo’s Ro Kumar

January 24, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us Ro Kumar. He’s the co-founder of Brush with Bamboo. Welcome to Green is Good, Ro. RO KUMAR: Thank you. Thank you for having me, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, we’re thrilled to have you on and you’re doing such wonderful work and we’re going to get to that story of Brush with Bamboo but before that, I want to hear and our listeners want to hear the Ro Kumar story. How did you get here? How did you become an ecopreneur sustainability superstar? Talk about your journey as a young man and growing up and then having an epiphany and idea and going into business for yourself. RO KUMAR: A lot of it has to do with my family and where I came from. I was born to Indian immigrants who came to the United States in 1970 and my family is all farmers so when they came to Southern California originally and they bought out first suburban house, which is near Clermont in Southern California, they started planting stuff. I grew up in a cookie cutter suburban housing development in a little miniature Indian farm and growing up, I would always have fresh delicious organic food even before organic became like a word and it wasn’t until I went to college at UC – Berkeley that I really realized what I had grown up with. I grew up on an organic farm and I was fed natural food and this is how I grew up and when I went to college, the juxtaposition of the organic natural lifestyle that I grew up with, compared with the conventional factory farming and all that, I really started learning about the gift that I had been given growing up and that is what really inspired my journey into sustainability because I feel that my roots and where I came from really affected and really showed me how natural products, natural food is really the healthiest and the best way and it’s also a traditional way. The majority of the world is still eating this way and is still living this way and I really want to preserve that and cultivate that here and I feel like that’s my family’s legacy to me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Your family was just doing this thing but you really were raised the way everybody is going now, organic and that was a lucky break but that influenced you and you continued on that path. RO KUMAR: Yeah, and ever since I went to college and my brother also went to college, we kind of told our parents, ‘Look, what you guys are doing is great,’ and we ended up converting our house more and more into even the front yard is gone now. It’s all a vegetable garden. There’s fruit trees everywhere. We really are embracing creating a homestead where even the suburbs can be sustainable. This is where I came from and coming from the background, I guess it’s not too surprising that I decided to go into sustainable business. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about that. You started this wonderful company. For our listeners out there that want to look at what Ro created and co-founded, I’m on your site right now. It is simply gorgeous. It’s www.brushwithbamboo.com. How did you and your co-founder come up with this idea for bamboo toothbrushes? RO KUMAR: Yeah, I had that sustainable background from my family and there was a time when I was done with college and I was in a time of my life where I wanted to start something, do something, and we happened to be watching a lot of documentaries at my house around that time and I remember I think we were watching this documentary called Plastic Planet and the maker of the documentary, he dropped a fact that really stood out to me and it was that every piece of plastic every created still exists and that really stood out to me and then he talked about all the harms that results from the use of plastic, how every human has plastic in their bloodstream, has BPA in their bloodstream and it was that night that I went to go brush my teeth and I was like wait a second, I’m putting this in my mouth and initially I just was like okay, I’m brushing with plastic and I never thought I would create a toothbrush company but as I started thinking about it more and more and my co-founder at the time was applying to dental school and he was a friend of mine from UC – Berkeley and we also coincidentally had some friends involved in the bamboo industry making bamboo textiles and bamboo clothing and stuff like that and it just kind of came together. I felt like it was almost meant to be. Everything kind of came together, We had my friend who was going to be a dentist and my friend who was really involved in the bamboo industry and we just came up with this idea. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how many years ago was that? RO KUMAR: That was about two-and-a-half years ago that we had the idea and the actual bamboo toothbrush hit the market about a year-and-a-half ago, so it took us about a year to actually come up with it and develop it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Which isn’t long for entrepreneurs. You did a good job. You dreamed it up, you visioned it, and you got it launched so let’s talk a little bit about the problem and the solution. You started talking about plastic and the problems with plastic and the epiphany that you had while you were watching the movie. What’s the problem? For our listeners out there, why shouldn’t they be using plastic toothbrushes and why did you choose bamboo as the replacement? RO KUMAR: Yeah. If you just think about it, the facts really speak for themselves. On average use, we use four toothbrushes per year. We use a toothbrush for three months and we dispose of it and if you just extrapolate that to all of America is doing that and most of Europe and now increasingly more of India and Asia and China, they’re all brushing with plastic. It adds up to about 4.7 billion plastic toothbrushes used every year worldwide and each of those toothbrushes has plastic bristles, plastic handles, plastic packaging and they last for about a thousand years each so it’s 4.7 billion pieces of plastic that are accumulating every year because we treat this as a disposable one time use type of thing but it’s really not. It’s going to exist in the world for a millennium and what really popped up to me is that if you think about the first plastic toothbrush was invented by the Dupont Company in 1938 and the first prototype they invented still has about 900 years before it fully bio degrades so we’re dealing with a problem of accumulation and wherever you see plastic waste in this world, you will find plastic toothbrush waste as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, how did you choose bamboo as the right replacement for plastic? RO KUMAR: We did look into a lot of wooden toothbrushes in the beginning but the issue with wood is that you keep your toothbrush in the moist bathroom environment where things are wet and things tend to mold so that’s the problem with a lot of wooden. There are some wooden toothbrushes out there but I find that in the moist bathroom environment, it tends to create mold on moist bathroom surfaces and that’s the genius of bamboo. Bamboo is a miracle plant in many ways and that’s why it’s so popular in the sustainable business environment is that unlike wood, bamboo is naturally anti-fungal, naturally antibacterial, and it defends itself much better against mold in the bathroom and as long as you keep our toothbrush fairly dry, it can’t be soaking in water or anything like that, but it does not mold in the bathroom. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about your toothbrush. How is the business going? How has it been received? I want people to buy your toothbrush because you make a compelling story. We shouldn’t be using plastic toothbrushes anymore so where can people find your great toothbrush? By the way, I use your toothbrush. I bought it somewhere and I love your toothbrush so for our listeners out there, it’s a great toothbrush, it works wonderfully, and you feel better using it. Where can our listeners buy your toothbrush? RO KUMAR: We’re available in about 200 retail locations in the U.S., and we’re concentrated primarily on the West Coast, mostly in little health food stores and eco stores and stuff like that. The largest chains we’re in are there’s Nugget Market and Mother’s Market but we’re not in Whole Foods yet or anything like that but 200 retail locations. It’s really spread out all over the place but what I will tell your listeners is that we offer the same price as most of our retailers online at BrushwithBamboo.com and we do offer free shipping nationwide, to Hawaii, to Alaska, anywhere in the United States, free shipping and if you order it online at BrushwithBamboo.com, you’ll get your toothbrush in two to three days, free shipping and on top of that, John, we don’t use any plastic in our shipping process. The toothbrushes are shipped in paper packages with paper tape so we try to keep in line with our mission in everything we do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great, and once people are done using your toothbrush, are there other creative ways to reuse your product or recycle your great toothbrush? RO KUMAR: Yeah, and this is something we thought about really early on is that well, you could throw this toothbrush and even the recycling is recycled paper. The wrapper is compostable. You could throw everything in your green waste bin but we did think about this early on is that we have a perfectly good high quality piece of bamboo so we started thinking about ways that we could creatively use this handle. You could use it as a seedling marker. You could write ‘tomato’ on it and put it in a seedling pot. We’ve had people sending us images of them using their old toothbrush handles to put their hair up or create structures or paint mixers, different little art projects for kids and the bamboo handles are kind of like popsicle sticks but a little sturdier and you can just reuse them however you need. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, your handles are biodegradable and the bristles, which are really soft, by the way, are BPA-free. RO KUMAR: That was one of the issues with the bristles is that we tried to create a biodegradable bristle. Initially, we used a bamboo blend in our bristles but the issue is that currently, to get a real biodegradable bristle, you’d have to use animal hair like boar’s hair or badger hair and there are a couple issues with that is that first of all, it’s really hard and damaging to the gums. It’s recommended that if you use animal bristles, you should brush only a few times a week and we didn’t want to use animal products so we didn’t want to get something that we couldn’t guarantee was sourced humanely so the bristle, we’re using the highest grade of nylon available, which is called Nylon Six and it does biodegrade in about a year after you dispose it and we also are certifying that BPA-free. The entire product is also certified free of no toxic chemicals, no BPA in the whole product and we certified that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners just joining us, we’ve got Ro Kumar on. He’s the co-founder of Brush with Bamboo. Go to their website, BrushwithBamboo.com. You can order his great products. Besides speaking of toothbrushes, you have more than just toothbrushes. I’m on you site now and you have other products. Share with our listeners out there what else do you have that they can enjoy sustainably? RO KUMAR: One other thing we thought of last year was we just got to thinking about drinking straws, other daily use products that people use every day and we thought about drinking straws. It’s so irritating to me when people give them away willy-nilly because these things last for centuries and it’s not really disposable. They exist for centuries and we use one billion plastic straws per day. It’s a massive plastic waste stream, one billion per day, so we created a bamboo drinking straw, so it’s actually a variety of bamboo that grows very thin at maturity and we are cutting them into 10 inch pieces and it works perfectly great as a bamboo drinking straw. You can reuse them and the packaging that we put them in, in keeping in line with our mission, is also fully biodegradable. They come in a bag made with plant starch and a recycled paper tag and the entire product off the shelf could technically go in your green waste bin. It’s all biodegradable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Talk a little bit about your vision and your goals now. You’ve got the business launched, you’re in about 200 stores, you’re selling online. What’s your goal. Where are you going with Brush with Bamboo in the future and what’s your real long term goals here, Ro? RO KUMAR: Yeah, for us, looking at the whole market, there’s 4.7 billion plastic toothbrushes used every year. There’s a billion plastic straws used every day. We want more and more of that huge number, which we’re only hitting a fraction of right now, to convert to the sustainable alternative, to convert to bamboo, and we really want to pour our resources as a company going forward into, I just want to create the best products possible because more than marketing, more than anything else, I think that by creating the best product possible, more and more people will support our mission so for example, one thing we want to do going forward is to start sourcing FSC Certified bamboo, meaning right now, we use bamboo that I know is sustainably farmed. It is farmed bamboo. It’s not old growth bamboo but I want to get that certified and to get that certified costs thousands of dollars but it’s something that I want to do to further put that trust with our customers and with people that support our company. We’re also looking into bamboo sources. Right now, our bamboo comes from Asia and we’re looking at bamboo sources in Hawaii and Alabama and really looking at what kind of stuff can we do with that domestically grown bamboo and we really just want to improve our products, really stay true to sustainably and convert more of that market away from the non biodegradable petroleum based materials that we’re using and convert it into sustainable products that will over time, degrade back into the earth and not end up in the stomachs of birds or anything like that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know Ro, we’re down to the last three minutes but I didn’t ask you earlier. Do you have a lot of competition in this space? Because I don’t see it out there I bought your toothbrush without even ever having met you and I love it. Is there a lot of competition right now? RO KUMAR: Not really, John. There is not a lot of competition in this space and for that reason, we feel like the sky’s the limit and the potential market is huge and when I use the word market, I’m hesitant to say we’re capturing the market here but it’s like voting in an election. The more people that vote for a sustainable material by purchasing it with their dollars, we are actually changing global consumption patterns and we’re changing the patterns of material usage and we can really shift entire industries by voting against plastic so that’s what I try to tell my customers and try to tell people when I talk about the toothbrush is that when you purchase products like these or any other products from companies that are committed to biodegradability, you’re voting against plastic pollution and that’s what the important part about products like these. We’re changing through voting with our dollars. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute. Two questions, Ro: (a)Where do people go to learn more about our horrible plastic right now in the world and (b) a few last pearls of wisdom from you to the young entrepreneurs that are listening that want to be the nest Ro Kumar. RO KUMAR: Sure, John. Definitely, there are some really good resources out there for learning about the plastic pollution crisis. The first I’ll give is MyPlasticFreeLife.com and this is a blog run by Beth Terry, who is one of the nation’s leading plastic activists and she’s really supported our mission and Beth Terry endorsed us as her favorite toothbrush so that’s the level of scrutiny that we put this product through is that she looked at all our paperwork, all our testing and she’s a really strong consumer advocate and she supports us and I would also recommend to some of your listeners definitely watch some of these documentaries out there. There’s Plastic Planet and there’s also Bag It, as in plastic bags. These are great resources to learn about the situation and for any entrepreneurs out there, I would just say just follow your passion. It’s all about making things happen that you want to see happen and to your listeners, ‘green is good radio’. That’s the coupon code for 10% off any of our products, all lower case, greenisgoodradio, one word. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re the best. For our listeners out there, go support Ro Kumar and his great work at Brush with Bamboo. It’s www.brushwithbamboo.com. Ro Kumar, you are a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good.