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7 Steps Toward a Sustainable Dentistry

Feature
Article

Paving the path to ecofriendly practices.

7 Steps Toward a Sustainable Dentistry | Image Credit: © Лилия Захарчук - stock.adobe.com / AI Generated

7 Steps Toward a Sustainable Dentistry | Image Credit: © Лилия Захарчук - stock.adobe.com / AI Generated

Dental practices often overlook their impact on the environment when pursuing excellence in patient care. Consider the waste generated by a single office each year, then multiply that by the number of dental offices across the United States. Although there isn’t much research on dentistry, studies show that the health care industry contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, poor air quality, and food and water insecurity.¹⁻² Oral health is crucial for overall well-being, so how can we continue to provide excellent patient care without adding to our carbon footprint?

An increasing number of patients are interested in ecofriendly dentistry. Recent reports revealed that 62% of consumers often or always seek more sustainable options, and 55% of consumers will pay more for sustainable brands.³ Dentistry is not exempt from this trend. Still, the good news is that, besides environmental benefits, going ecofriendly can also reduce long-term costs, enhance patient experience, and increase profitability

There are numerous ways to improve sustainability in dental offices, including reducing plastic use, minimizing single-use waste, recycling, selecting ecofriendly materials, and conserving water, energy, and electricity. The American Dental Association shared a list of 80 ways to make your dental office green, and below are 7 strategic steps dental offices can take to become more ecofriendly while maintaining high standards of care and maximizing your bottom line.⁴

Breaking the Barriers to Sustainable Dentistry

Disposable barriers are crucial in infection control, but excessive use contributes significantly to waste. Lynda Sherman, an expanded function dental auxiliary of 25 years and the founder of EcoSmiles Dentistry, a company focused on helping dental offices become greener, emphasizes the importance of minimizing barriers in noncritical areas. Sherman suggests that using barriers on noncritical items such as the x-ray tube head and the overhead light wastes time, money, and energy.

Sherman discusses a common situation in dentistry: A handpiece goes missing after a procedure, and when no one finds it, multiple team members must go through the trash to find it. Think of how much time, money, and energy is wasted during that time—even if the handpiece is found. Fewer barriers mean fewer opportunities for throwing expensive equipment and instruments away.

Offices should consider implementing protocols to mandate using disposables, plastic, and paper barriers only in critical areas. By doing so, dental teams can reduce unnecessary waste without compromising patient safety.

Reducing Waste One Choice at a Time

It’s shocking how many dental materials we use in 1 procedure and how much we throw away afterward. Dental products often contain excessive packaging and plastic waste, from prophy paste to disposable prophy angles. Dental professionals can mitigate this by opting for products with minimal packaging or exploring ecofriendly alternatives.

When using instrument cassettes, Zirc Dental Products’ color-coded instrument cassettes are a great low-cost option, as they are lightweight, easy to use, promote efficiency and safety in the practice, and reduce waste.

Waste Warriors: Recycling vs Trash Tossing

A critical aspect of sustainability is waste management. Many dental offices implement recycling programs with good intentions, but these systems break down over time. Dental practices can evaluate their waste disposal practices and prioritize recycling wherever feasible. One can start by recycling essential items such as glass, plastic, and paper. Offices can also recycle disinfectant tubs, laundry detergent containers, old brochures, boxes, etc. Minimizing single-use products, switching to reusable alternatives, and adopting ecofriendly solutions can further reduce environmental impact. Using recycled paper products for letterhead, stationary, envelopes, business cards, paper towels, and toilet paper is another way to minimize waste.

Going Digital

Transitioning a dental office to digital may seem daunting, but digitizing patient records, charting, billing, radiography, and consent forms can drastically reduce waste in the practice. Practices can also transition to digital for patient education and communication to minimize paper usage and reduce their carbon footprint.

Repurposing Resources for a Greener Practice

Although most instruments last a long time, they all have a life span. However, retired dental instruments often sit in a pile in the back of a closet. One way to increase the life span of dental instruments is through retipping and sharpening systems., which can maintain instruments for extended periods, promoting sustainability and responsible resource management. Dental professionals can recycle retired dental instruments through instrument recycling programs, such as HuFriedyGroup’s Environdent Instrument Recycling and ProDentUSA’s Instruments for Change programs.

Energy-Saving Strategies for Sustainable Dentistry

Turning off unused lights and computers is 1energy-saving measure dental offices can take. Practices can minimize their environmental footprint by optimizing power usage and transitioning to energy-efficient technologies. Here are 7 examples of ways to start saving energy in your practice:

  • Turn off the lights when leaving the room.
  • Turn off the computers when leaving the office for the day.
  • Use smart power strips for electronics.
  • Replace high-energy office lights with energy-efficient lighting.
  • Install a programmable thermostat.
  • Sign up for your energy company’s energy savings program.
  • Remove TVs from the waiting room.

Sherman recommends that offices implement an energy audit to identify areas for improvement and prioritize tasks accordingly. They could also hire a consultant who can streamline and expedite the process.

Promoting Ecofriendly Products

Ever wonder where each tube of toothpaste goes after you throw it away? Think about how many empty toothpaste tubes, floss containers, toothbrushes, floss picks, and toothbrush packages are lying around. Dental professionals play a significant role in the products patients buy. Dental professionals can take simple steps to educate patients on ecofriendly oral care products and alternatives to single-use items. Encouraging patients to choose reusable floss options and promoting larger containers of toothpaste over single-use travel sizes can significantly reduce waste. Offices can stock ecofriendly and all-natural oral care products in their practice solely or to complement current products. Additionally, offices can look into recyclable or biodegradable patient care bags.

Paving the Way for a Cleaner Future

Sustainability in dental practices is not only possible but also essential for the well-being of our planet. Small, incremental steps move us toward a cleaner future. By implementing these 7 simple steps, dental professionals can demonstrate their commitment to the environment while delivering exceptional patient care. And remember: Going ecofriendly is not only good for the environment, but it can also support long-term growth and your bottom line.

[Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify CDC Guidelines for Infection in Dental Healthcare Settings. The original version stated:

"Another easy way to reduce waste is by using instrument cassettes in the office instead of plastic pouches for sterilization."

The CDC, however, recommends cleaned instruments and other dental supplies should be inspected, assembled into sets or trays, and wrapped, packaged, or placed into container systems for sterilization. The guidelines further state that: Packaging materials (e.g., wraps or container systems) allow penetration of the sterilization agent and maintain sterility of the processed item after sterilization. Materials for maintaining sterility of instruments during transport and storage include wrapped perforated instrument cassettes, peel pouches of plastic or paper, and sterilization wraps (i.e., woven and nonwoven).

To avoid putting patient safety at risk by not protecting the sterility of instruments, it is advised to closely follow the CDC guidelines noted here.]

References
1. Climate change. World Health Organization. October 12, 2023. Accessed March 15, 2024. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health
2. Hackley DM. Climate change and oral health. Int Dent J. 2021;71(3):173-177. doi:10.1111/idj.12628
3. Ruiz A. 52 huge environmentally conscious consumer statistics. TheRoundup.org. Updated December 22, 2023. Accessed March 15, 2024. https://theroundup.org/environmentally-conscious-consumer-statistics/
4. 80 ways to make your dental practice green. American Dental Association. Accessed January 25, 2022. https://www.ada.org/resources/practice/practice-management/office-design/80-ways-to-make-your-dental-practice-green
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