Is the dental industry really doing enough in the war on plastic?

plasticAnna Olczak calls on dentists to lead the fight with dentistry’s reliance on single-use plastics.

Like me, most of the dentists I know are really ethical. In fact, at our fully private practice, Tooth in Waterloo, our whole vision and ethos is shaped around ethical dentistry. But, aside from doing everything we can to give exceptional ethical patient care, there’s always been something else which hasn’t sat right with us – namely, the sheer amount of single-use plastic we have to use and dispose of every single day.

As the world wakes up to the plastic crisis, it feels like the dental sector is dragging its heels. And whilst it’s obvious why plastic clinical disposables can’t be recycled, and whilst we know that they aren’t adding to the staggering 8 million metric tonnes of plastic that goes into our oceans each and every year (as clinical waste is incinerated), the continued use of single-use plastics in dentistry and elsewhere, still has a big environmental impact. What’s more, using plastic irresponsibly doesn’t reflect Tooth as a brand nor as a business, and being based in the heart of a forward-thinking and cosmopolitan city, we don’t feel it reflects well with our patients either.

Tooth’s War on Plastic

As a practice we’ve worked with the team and with our suppliers to do what we can to help reduce our single-use plastics and we’ve come up with a 10 point pledge and launched our ‘Tooth’s War on Plastic’ campaign.

We’re realistic and we know that these 10 steps alone unfortunately will not change the world and we also know that there will still be lots of plastic waste at our surgery, but we also deeply believe that if every single dental surgery made these small changes, not only would the world be a better place, but also suppliers would stand up and listen, and it could be just the nudge that the dental industry needs right now.

Here’s our 10 point pledge:

  • Give all of the team refillable Chilly’s water bottles
  • Replace our patient cups with compostable plant-based cups
  • Replace our plastic 3in1 tips with autoclaveable tips
  • Trial new eco plastic-free suction tubes
  • Start selling bamboo eco Tepe alternatives
  • Discuss dental plastic waste with suppliers and industry leaders
  • Start selling bamboo eco toothbrushes
  • Place an additional recycling bin in the clinical area for non-clinical recyclables
  • Explore additional alternatives to cut our plastic waste
  • Talk to customers about our campaign and why we are doing it and share best practice.

All of these actions are easy to do and have a direct and immediate impact. True, they aren’t the cheapest way to do business, but can we really put a price on our planet’s health?

Developing and starting with the pledge has also been great for business. We had no doubts that our patients would love it, but an unforeseen additional benefit was team morale. Not only did the team absolutely adore their beautiful and bright new Chilly bottles (each chose their own designs), but also the level of team engagement was amazing! Loads of ideas were shared on our Tooth gang Whatsapp group from the whole team, and even a former team member who saw the campaign on our social media channels got in touch to ask where we were sourcing our wonderfully cute Decent Cups – which are entirely plant-based and compostable too, so they could share the details with their current practices as they too were concerned with plastic waste in dentistry.

Calls for change

It hasn’t been an entirely easy journey though. One challenge that we found with the campaign was from the supplier and manufacturer end of the chain. The learning was that it’s incredibly hard to find eco versions of most of the disposables we use. Our main supplier (who were really engaged with this campaign and helped us source some of the products), doesn’t, for example, stock eco-friendly cups.

This led us to think that surely these dental manufacturers and suppliers have a duty of care to bring these products into the world of dentistry and make them not only widely available, but also affordable? Well at Tooth we certainly think so!

Whilst at Tooth we’re happy to eat into our profits a bit to make these changes, we know that not every practice will be willing or able to do this, so what we really need is a level playing field to make this work – in quality, availability and pricing. To help make this happen, we will be writing to each of our suppliers and the lead dental disposable manufacturers to call for this.

It’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes seeping through though, but the question is are these changes soon enough and big enough?

We’ve seen big manufacturers like Tepe introduce some eco products, but can you imagine how many Tepe’s are thrown away in surgery demos and households every single day? Whilst Tepe recently advertised a Tepe recycling trial in partnership with Cannon Hygiene, by the time we went to register the scheme was already closed. I wonder how many other surgeries missed this opportunity.

I don’t want the dental sector to get left behind in this fight, and that’s why my team and I at Tooth are calling on all dentists, hygienists, and practice owners and managers to make the change, or make some change. Our planet needs you too.

Let us, as a sector of trained professionals, lead, not follow. Let us show that the current situation isn’t good enough and let us show our patients that truly being ethical extends beyond our dental treatments and patient care.

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