The straight and narrow – can we recycle aligners?

Straight and narrowEmma Laing explores the environmental impact of clear aligners and whether there is a solution to prevent aligners ending up in landfill.

In the lovely recent heatwave I spent a day at the Sussex coast with my kids. On the beach promenade was a huge plastics recycling bin, made as sculpture out of wire in the shape and size of a whale.

It had an important message of not dropping your litter at the beach and it ending up in the sea. It was such an unusual shape and sight that it was attracting a lot of people. They were stopping by to have a look, and use it. It was already half-filled with plastics waste.

We are increasingly conscious of the need to preserve the environment in today’s world. As well as ensuring plastics don’t end up in the oceans.

Plastics waste in orthodontics

As an orthodontist offering clear aligners, there is often the question of what to do with the aligners afterwards.

There is no need to keep the aligners once worn. Aside from wearing an older version, in case you lose or damage your current aligner.

My patients regularly keep the first aligner for posterity. Some like to keep everything to document the journey they have been on. But there is no need to keep the older ones.

The most common way to dispose of aligners is in the regular waste bin. However, with Invisalign now surpassing an amazing milestone of making aligners for 10 million people, and multiple other companies producing high volumes of aligners, it is estimated that 25 million aligners end up in general waste landfill each year.

Can we recycle aligner trays?

Unfortunately not, for a few reasons.

Firstly as we wear aligners in the mouth, we classify them as medical waste. This is not permitted in the recycling bin.

Invisalign states: ‘Invisalign aligners and Vivera retainers are classified as class IIa medical device. They have CE marking in accordance with the Medical Device Directive 93/42/EEC.’

The second reason is the composition of aligners. Invisalign defines its product as made of: ‘Medical-grade, high molecular weight, thermoplastic polymers, in either a single layer or multilayer configuration. The thermoplastic polymers are made of a proprietary mixture of co-polyester and polyurethane (TPU).’

The multi-layered polymer is a mix of different plastics. This allows both rigidity and elasticity to permit tooth movement.

Each type of plastic however requires a different recycling method. So we can’t sort them into one of the recycling methods.

Are there any alternatives?

One recent innovation might prevent aligners ending up in landfill.

Spotlight Oral Care is partnering with Terracycle to recycle: ‘Any brand of dental aligner and its flexible plastic packaging and any brand of plastic aligner case.’

Terracycle is a brand aiming to recycle the ‘non-recyclable’. It is partnering with collectors across 20 countries, diverting waste from landfills and incinerators.

With aligners: ‘Once collected, the dental aligners, flexible plastic packaging and cases are cleaned and melted into hard plastic. This is then remoulded to make new recycled products.’

UK dentists can participate in the scheme and anyone can drop the aligners off into a collection box at the dental surgeries involved.

Several UK colleagues are already involved. An interactive map shows the practices signed up to date.

Whilst I completely support this idea, the only question I have is – whilst I appreciate this addresses the issue of recycling the TPU components of the aligners, I cannot see any mention of the medical waste issue. But I will ensure I ask this question to Terracycle.

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