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We all know that the key to worldbuilding is designing the right kind of the toothpaste tube. Terra is enthusiastic about fossil fuels, plastic, single-use wastemaking packaging, but this world I am building is not.

Fossil fuel/plastic isn't hardly a thing here. Canvas carrier bags. Wood furniture. Woollen coats instead of polyesters. Wood-and-stone houses instead of concrete. Instead of plastic bottles, you fill this up at the well or fountain. What I'm saying is that sundries are built of natural materials, mostly built by craftspeople rather than factories.

So what's a toothpaste tube made out of that avoids waste (is reusable) and is manufactured without industrial chemistry?

One thing I found was the syringes in the picture below, which your village glassblower could make for you, and you could top up with toothpaste every time you run out –

glass

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    $\begingroup$ The idea of a collapsible tube container with a small opening is one of convenience for dosing. A small squeeze gives you the perfect dose. If you forego that tiny convenience, suddenly the toothpaste can come in any container. From wooden bowls, to jars, to metal tins. All you need to do is get the right dose out yourself. $\endgroup$
    – Plutian
    Feb 18, 2023 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ as a side note, plastic doesn't require fossil fuels (nor does, strictly speaking, diesel) $\endgroup$
    – njzk2
    Feb 18, 2023 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ Note the "hardly" in my post: biofuels, bioplastic, maybe even very sparing use of coal with a tiny market share can happen. It's just that the productive forces don't depend on that. And material culture is mostly (note the 'mostly') crafting naturally-occurring materials. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 18, 2023 at 17:27
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    $\begingroup$ "what's a toothpaste tube made out of .. without industrial chemistry? .. syringes .. your village glassblower could make" .. clearly you don't consider it so, but how exactly is it that glass manufacture (the mixing of different substances and heating of the mixture to cause a reaction resulting in a permanent change in state) not considered part and parcel of industrial chemistry? // and why is it all 'industrial chemistry' is considered 'bad' in your cyberpunk variant world when some of it can clearly be sustainable? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Feb 19, 2023 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ Also, what is wrong with concrete? Romans used it after all, for a good reason. $\endgroup$
    – Negdo
    Feb 20, 2023 at 14:06

4 Answers 4

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Let's start with a definition of Solarpunk

Solarpunk is a literary and artistic movement that envisions and works toward actualizing a sustainable future interconnected with nature and community. ... As a science fiction literary subgenre and art movement, solarpunk works address how the future might look if humanity succeeded in solving major contemporary challenges with an emphasis on sustainability, human impact on the environment, and addressing climate change and pollution. Especially as a subgenre, it is aligned with cyberpunk derivatives, and may borrow elements from utopian and fantasy genres. Solarpunk can risk being greenwashed through aesthetics that give the appearance of sustainability without addressing the root causes of actual environmental issues. (Source)

What do I learn from this?

  1. We're looking for something sustainable.
  2. We're looking for something that binds the user to nature and/or community.
  3. The solution reflects solving today's problems, notably human impact on the environment.
  4. We're specifically trying to avoid looking sustainable without addressing a root cause of environmental impact.

Let's ask ourselves what the environmental impacts of toothpaste tubes

Toothpaste tubes cannot be recycled in a single stream, or mixed recycling bin that is typical for most recycling services. The reason is that toothpaste tubes are made from layers of plastic and aluminum, and items like that with more than one component are difficult to recycle. ...

My basic question was, what is the environmental footprint of toothpaste? I wasn't able to find all the information I was looking for, but, being a former lab-rat, I love breaking things down and analyzing them, so I filled in the gaps for myself. I'm sure it's not perfect, but it will give you an idea, and hopefully inspire you to switch to tooth powder. ...

Toothpaste Tubes Increase Our Carbon Footprint by 3.5 billions tonnes of CO2 annually. ...

Toothpaste tubes also waste toothpaste. You literally can't squeeze it all out of there. On the internet, the average waste cited is about 5% of the toothpaste. ...

Tooth powder has no water in it, while toothpaste contains 20 - 40% water. This increases the carbon footprint of transportation by about 30%, just to transport it from the factory to the store. (Source)

Full disclaimer, that site is kinda self-serving as they're selling tooth powder in what they claim are reusable containers — some of which are plastic. Still, when you read through it, the author of the article was thorough if not perfectly scientific.

OK, what can we do to believably use toothpaste in a solarpunk world?

  • We're using a powder. The argument about reducing weight in transport by removing the water at the manufacturing plant and adding it at the point of use is compelling.

  • From that same point of view, we're looking for a light shipping container. Plastic is definitely light, but plastic has a high cost for pollution and disposal. We're looking for a light reusable container that can hold powder, and when it does need to be replaced, it's disposal footprint is really small. I'm thinking Xiangxi bamboo weaving, which is good enough to hold water. So long as the powder itself doesn't have a consequence (most toothpastes do, so powder can, too, but we'll ignore that for this question), bamboo is about as environmentally cheap as it gets.

I believe the use of woven bamboo to hold tooth powder meets all the identified requirements for Solarpunk. Wholly natural to grow, no heat required to gather, process, or manufacture, and when disposed of it's 100% biodegradable in a short period of time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Worldbuilding Meta, or in Worldbuilding Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Feb 20, 2023 at 3:56
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Collapsible tube containers were invented in 1841, by John Rand, an American painter; the point being that they don't need modern plastics. They were made of zinc, or tin, or lead, sometimes with an internal coating of beeswax. Toothpaste sold in such collapsibe tin tubes was introduced in the 1880s.

Before that toothpaste came, sometimes, not often, in something like a syringe made of tin. Never glass.

tin-syringe

But the most common containers for toothpaste before the invention of the collapsible metal tube container were small metal boxes or tin cans. (Similar to those in which Nivea cream is sold to this day.)

Before that, toothpaste was not really a thing and people used toothpowder which came in any random kind of container.

Good luck with making glass or smelting metals without using fossil fuels or burning all your forests. Glass making and metal smelting are very energy intensive.

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    $\begingroup$ Lots of cultures without coal had glassblowing. Also: invidious.namazso.eu/watch?v=ptUj8JRAYu8 $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 17, 2023 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ @wokopa typically by burning Wood into charcoal. $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Feb 17, 2023 at 23:45
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    $\begingroup$ @HarryMu: Not without ultramodern technology... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Feb 18, 2023 at 0:38
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    $\begingroup$ I've already posted the solar-glasswork you're talking about; click the link in my first comment. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 18, 2023 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ On the sidetrack of using solar for metalworking, there's the Odeillo foundry in the south of France that has been doing it for years on a commercial scale, and one in Kazakhstan has been running for nearly 50 years. Though obviously charcoal is the obvious way to go among sustainable resources. See also. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Feb 18, 2023 at 0:57
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Instead of toothpaste, use toothsoap.

Rather than a paste or powder that needs a container, formulate your tooth-cleaning material such that it's solid before being used. Slice it into rectangles and wrap it in paper or whatever else is convenient. When you need to use some, use the toothbrush (possibly with water) to scrub a bit off.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or toothpowder. $\endgroup$ Feb 19, 2023 at 18:11
  • $\begingroup$ Or baking soda. $\endgroup$ Feb 20, 2023 at 1:10
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Any item that people use for a long time, is very likely to be ornately decorated and embellished. Whether by holder themselves according to their taste, or they received it from someone special and it serves as a reminder to them, or memory of some achievement, or any kind of meaning. So I believe the answer to "what would X look like in solarpunk society" must include this. Not have the same bland throwaway design we are used to in our consumer society, except with sustainable materials.

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