Sustainability in dentistry – planning a more sustainable practice

sustainability in dentistryIn the second of a four-part series, Mark Topley explains how to plan a more sustainable approach to running your practice.

Most people I speak to are aware of the need to run a more sustainable practice. This awareness is usually married with a desire to act.

But where many fail is taking that critical first step towards planning what to do. Where do I start? How do I get the team on board? How do we know we’re making a difference?

Planning sustainability

In my work as a sustainability and responsibility professional over the past four years (preceded by 20 years in dentistry) I’ve tried and tested an approach to planning sustainability that works.

And the good news is that although there are currently some heavy (and not always altogether rational) regulatory constraints on sustainability in dentistry, there are a large number of things that you can do.

A good sustainability plan will include a comprehensive audit and action plan for single use, recycling, energy, biodiversity, carbon footprint, overall resource reduction and communication. 

There are four stages:

  1. Foundations
  2. Set targets
  3. Identify initiatives
  4. Measure and review.

Foundations – start with why

You may be aware of the work of Simon Sinek. He’s a former advertising executive whose TED Talk ‘Start with why’ has been viewed more than 55 million times. It articulated what many of us intuitively know, but weren’t able to put into words.

As Sinek explains, every organisation knows what they do – sell burgers, fix teeth, make widgets. Some know how they do it (as in, the way that they behave). But very few know, or can articulate, why.

Why does their work matter, why is it important? What change or service does it bring to people?

Starting with why in any project works. I’ve seen it in teams time and again.

When we engage our people with the reason why something matters, whatever that is, it connects powerfully.

What does this mean for planning sustainability? Put simply, the process we use must at every stage, start with ‘why’.

Because when we start with why, we engage people at a deeper level. We connect them to a higher purpose, and that drives action. So get clear on why you are starting this plan.

Set targets

Once you have articulated why the project matters, you need to make some commitments. Get specific about what they mean in practice.

Your commitments might look something like this:

  • We will reduce our energy consumption by XX% this year
  • We will reduce the carbon footprint of our travel by X% this year
  • The practice will increase the amount of waste we recycle by XX%
  • We will reduce the amount of water we use each year by XX%.

And so on. For each area (see below), identify a simple target that you can measure.

Identify initiatives

Only now should you start thinking about ‘what’ you are going to do. The initiatives you choose should serve as a way to achieve your targets. Here are some to consider:


For businesses who really want to impact their plastic footprint, you can investigate plastic offsetting.

It is a relatively new, and well overdue concept. The most innovative of these I have seen is Repurpose Global. They clear up low-value plastic waste streams across the developing world. They also finance new waste infrastructure and fund the scaling of the reach of virgin plastic alternatives, which aim to replace the need to create new plastics in the first place.


Reducing your carbon footprint is multi-faceted. But can start with a green travel policy.

Sixty five per cent of your carbon footprint is typically the travel to and from the practice of staff and patients.

As well as grouping appointments for patients from the same household, favouring public transport and lift sharing are good to encourage. You can also participate in walk or bike to work schemes.

Many of my clients organise a regular diary of carbon cutting events or schemes for the team. Examples are walk to work days, ‘no car’ days etc.

Of course this only works in areas where people don’t have to travel long distances. And if there is access to good public transport. 

A big and often easy win for many businesses is to switch their power sources to wholly renewable or carbon neutral energy.

Reducing consumption is a theme that runs through sustainability. This is true for energy too.

Switch off all lights, computers and electronic devices when your building is closed. Apart from your critical security lighting, and your servers, of course.

You can reduce the amount of energy that you use with low energy bulbs installed throughout the building. 

You can assess and offset the carbon footprint of your business each year using companies such as Meter and record energy use each month.

You then assess and put a plan in place to reduce the energy usage annually.


Use recyclable or washable cups throughout the building. There should be zero use of disposable cutlery or plates, and this includes at staff training events on and off the premises.

You should recycle all non-clinical waste that is possible. This includes paper, plastics, card and cans.

Implement waste separation in surgery to maximise recycling, and to minimise clinical waste. Largely, this will comprise the paper elements of autoclave sleeves.

Provide a recycling point in the practice for toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and batteries, printer cartridges and coffee pods.

Don’t just throw things away when they reach the end of their life with you.

Recycle, donate, repair or reuse lightly damaged or worn and outdated office furniture or clinical furniture. Donate outdated computer equipment to a suitable charity.


Whether it’s general, clinical or recycling, everything should be removed by a licensed waste carrier. They will supply waste transfer notes. Record these so you can set and plan targets for waste reduction. 

Conserving natural resources like water should be a part of your plan. This can include everything from low flow taps and short flush cisterns to water butts to collect and reuse rainwater.

How many times a week does the ‘big white van’ pull up outside? Reducing the carbon emissions from your procurement is also worth looking at.

Better coordinate ordering and distribution to reduce the number of deliveries that you need. 

If you send things out, give away oral health packs etc. Take a good look at reviewing your approaches to ordering and packaging. Try to package less. Digital treatment plans are also a good move.

If you have to use packaging, then increase the level of sustainability of your packaging constitution. 

Your printed materials should be on FSC (Forestry Standards Council) or recycled card or paper. Use double sided printing. 

Choose green options of supplies in all areas where possible. There is a growing range of non-clinical supplies that are more environmentally friendly. Many cleaning companies now offer a ‘greener’ cleaning service. 

Review what’s printed and sent out, with the aim of reducing your print production and postage over time. 


The power of your pound can boost your sustainable credentials.

A sustainable procurement checklist can ensure that sustainable supply is maximised. Larger purchases should include sustainability as a part of the weighting in identifying a supplier.

The key is to make sure that every pound that you spend is going to a transparent supply chain.


Your website, social media, newsletter and posters within the business can display a simple, clear, and repeatable green message that patients, as well as staff, can be informed and encouraged by. 

The practice should also have a green champion who ensures adherence to best practices and shares good ideas with other staff.

This person needs to receive suitable training; there are a number of easily accessible options on the market. 


Biodiversity is becoming an increasingly important aspect of daily life. The impact of pesticides on our native insect and bird populations is on the increase.

Having a wildlife area outside your practice, where possible, is therefore an important step forward. This can also include bird feeders, native wildflowers and native shrubs.

If you don’t have a garden area, then a planter is a good option. Or, in inner city environments, roof gardens, or even window boxes can also provide some positive impact.


When it comes to refreshments, make sure that your tea, coffee and sugar are all supplied by a Fairtrade manufacturer.

Offer bioplastic and bamboo oral health products for sale in your practice. Just because it is now possible to recycle plastic toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes does not mean that we should ignore action to reduce the creation of plastic in the first place.

Finally, in surgery, carry out a review at least quarterly of the new sustainability options and solutions that are becoming available.


Finally, ensure that each initiative has a means of measurement.

This doesn’t have to be a rigorous scientific research project. But something that is robust enough to give you confidence that you’re making progress. For example:

  • Power – recording the number of KwH that you use each month and comparing like for like months
  • Gas – again, record your KwH usage month to month. See how your initiatives are making an impact
  • Water – bills tend to be longer range. But you can take your own meter readings and record them to see how your water saving initiatives are working
  • Recycling – if you’re using a commercial waste service, then you will receive waste transfer notes. These will tell you the weight of your various types of recycling. If not, then it’s more difficult. But it is still possible to record what level of rubbish is in your various bins each week
  • Carbon – it’s never been easier to calculate your footprint using calculators like this one from the Carbon Trust. Whichever method you use, keep it consistent. Then you’ll have an accurate way of assessing your progress each year.

Read previous Sustainability in dentistry columns:

Next week we will move on to consider how to put your plan into action, successfully building and maintaining momentum. In the meantime, I have two resources available that will help you if you are ready to get started.

  • ‘The CSR Advantage’ – an ebook which outlines the whole process of planning sustainability and social responsibility
  • Sustainability in 60 minutes – a four-part online video course with support activities and resources to help you plan and implement a successful CSR plan without needing to be an expert.
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