Is it time for greener dentistry?

environmental dentistryMark Topley asks, when can we stop feeling guilty and take the first steps towards greener dentistry?

We are experiencing climate change on a global level from the harm we have been inflicting on our planet for decades. It sometimes seems to be a guessing game as to which extreme weather alert will be given tomorrow. The oceans and landfills are overflowing with plastic that will never decompose. Pollution from a list too long to name in one short article is only increasing.

Everywhere I go, clients are more and more concerned about the environmental impact of dentistry. Everyone is acutely aware of the amount of waste that is generated on both the clinical and non-clinical sides of our business. I also hear how powerless many feel to change it.

What is going on?

There’s a growing expectation from both consumers and our teams that we simply must do more to protect the environment. So why isn’t more being done? If a willingness to do something was enough, then we would be much further ahead. So why aren’t we?

Certainly, we have a challenge. There are so many practical constraints from regulation that seem to disqualify common sense approaches to items that might have otherwise been recycled.

Also, there is the issue of a lack of information about what manufacturers and suppliers are able to provide in the way of ‘green lines’ of consumables. There is not enough transparency around chemicals and processes used in some materials.

The challenge

Many dentists and managers lack the time to look for greener alternatives and fear the potential for additional cost.

For many dentists and managers in charge of procurement, this all leads to frustration and resignation to the status quo. But it doesn’t alleviate the concern. The levels of guilt when I start conversations with clients on this topic is palpable.

We do have a challenge; of that, there is no doubt. Compliance and patient safety come first. But there is, in all of us, a strong desire to protect our environment. And we should be able to do both.

A growing number of people in the profession are beginning to talk about what can be done to change the way dentistry is delivered to make it more environmentally friendly. This is good news, but the political and regulatory wheels tend to turn painfully slowly.

So, while we lobby and campaign for policy change, we have to act personally.

As Edward E Hale once said: ‘I am only one, but I am still one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can.’

Thankfully, there is a great deal that practices can do already to limit their footprint and promote this to their patients. If you are looking for the simple steps you can take to move your practice to a more environmentally responsible position, I’ve got some great places for you to start.

Where to begin – the basics

Eliminating non-clinical, single-use plastics, recycling whenever possible, reducing energy consumption, and limiting the use of paper are all straightforward methods to lessen your environmental impact.

Single-use plastic for food and beverage is one of the quickest methods to eliminate plastic waste. Stop the supply of bottled water at the practice. Substitute a water cooler with compostable paper cups, or better still, offer reusable glasses that can go through the dishwasher.

On the same note, use recyclable or washable cups throughout the practice for staff refreshments. Cut out disposable cutlery and plates for staff lunches and parties. Use washable dinnerware sets for meals.

If reusable plates and cutlery are available, but plastic options aren’t, your team will automatically reach for the reusable option.

What else can we do?

To save energy, it almost goes without saying that you should turn off all lights when the practice is closed. Apart from critical security lighting, obviously.

Rather than letting machines idle on standby, turn off computers and other electronic devices when the practice closes. Wherever possible, replace light bulbs with low-energy options.

It’s encouraging to see many practices already going paperless. When you must print, institute a double-sided printing policy (unless it is critical to use single sheets).

Recycling is a big one. It’s important to ensure that recycling bins for non-clinical waste are offered on site (to include paper, plastics, card and cans). In many practices, particularly where you have several desks, removing under-desk bins encourages separation of waste and helps to remind staff that recycling is important and easy. Also, make sure you use a licensed waste carrier with relevant Waste Transfer Notes supplied.

Finally, environmental care extends to the production of the refreshments on offer. If your practice supplies beverages, ensure that they are Fair Trade or fairly traded. Tea, coffee and even sugar falls into this category. As part of your charitable contributions, you can also consider donating to a local environmental organisation.

We’ve covered the basics – now what?

Once you’ve covered the basics – and we should all attain the basic standard – what comes next?

Energy supply is an easy win. I’ve found personally, and with clients, it can actually work out cheaper than the existing supplier.

There are now some excellent companies providing 100% renewable tariffs. A quick search will bring up a list to contact for information. Sometimes having a better understanding of usage can help us to reduce more effectively.

Practices can agree to meter their energy usage annually. Monitoring the success of your commitment to reduce consumption can have a powerful impact on your follow through.

The target-based approach applies to monitoring waste quantities. By agreeing to an annual audit with the aim of reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill per employee each year, it’s easier to see the impact that small changes are making, and makes the small effort seem more important. 

Everyday alternatives

Introducing the sale of non-plastic or bio plastic toothbrushes is also a great step that is highly visible to patients and showcases your environmental commitment.

Just think about it; every toothbrush ever owned by you still sits in a landfill in exactly the same state it was in when you put it in the bin. Gives you pause, doesn’t it? Many patients are already looking for alternatives to the typical plastic toothbrush, so having them available for purchase is a no brainer.

Have a staff member appointed as a ‘green champion’ to ensure adherence to best practice. Shared new ideas with other staff has proven beneficial in many practices. This green champion could be the person to implement the sale of non-plastic toothbrushes and other similar initiatives.

Finally, make use of your website, social media, newsletter and display areas in the practice to share the green message. It will both encourage staff and patients and remind them of your commitment to the environment, which may, in turn, increase their commitment to your practice.

The gold standard

If you’re looking for ideas to take this further, some initiatives, implemented by my clients, exemplify the very highest levels of responsibility. These are practices that have really embraced their responsibility and made it part of their every day operation.

One practice set up a recycling point for plastic toothbrushes and squeezed out toothpaste tubes and arranged for their recycling. To take it a step further, you could also host drop boxes for batteries and printer cartridges.

A few practices have created a wildlife area outside the practice including bird feeders, native wild flowers and native shrubs. For practices without a garden or forecourt, raised beds or flower containers can be a good substitute.

Some practices have committed to a zero single-use plastic scheme across the practice. It’s completely achievable (with the only exception being critical clinical use) and makes a big impact. In addition, committing to recycle, donate, or repair and reuse all slightly damaged, worn or dated office furniture, or clinical furniture cuts down on waste. Donating outdated computer equipment to a designated charity, gives it a new lease of life.

Outside of the constraints of compliance, there are a good number of things that practices can, and should, do to take their environmental responsibility seriously.

Despite the challenges, it really is possible to move past the frustration many of us feel when it comes to the environmental impact of our businesses. We can create a structured approach to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect our world.

This article first appeared in Private Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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