Going sustainable in dentistry is easier than you think


Mark Topley gives an insight into sustainability in the dental sector and outlines some ways that you can make your practice more sustainable.

Mark, thank you for speaking with us. Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do? 

My name is Mark Topley. I basically help dentists to have more successful practices by helping them become more sustainable, responsible, enjoyable places to work.

I came into dentistry around 2003, so a little while ago now. For a long time, I worked with a charity called Bridge2aid and I was based overseas with them. When I left Bridge2aid about five years ago, I set up this practice, which is all about helping businesses to be more responsible.

This comes from my background as a charity CEO, combined with my interest in sustainability and those sorts of things.  

What are the issues with sustainability – or lack of – in the dental profession? 

People most often think about single use and how much of an issue it is. It’s one of the things that people say they get most frustrated about. 

Obviously, during the pandemic, PPE was a big issue and having to dispose of those things. The use of plastics is an issue. 

Travel is also a big issue; a lot of a practice’s carbon footprint is the travel to and from the practice by the team and the patients. Clinical waste is an issue, regulation is an issue. There are lots of different things that combine.  

But I think, although single use is a big issue, it’s not by any means the only issue and it’s something that people can certainly do something about. 

What are some of the ways that a practice can become more sustainable? 

There’s a lot of things. The big issue is travel. 

When becoming more sustainable, most people think about carbon footprint, so anything you can do to combine travel appointments for people that are in the same family. 

Anything you can do to encourage your team to walk to work, use public transport, or cycle to work, which makes them healthier. Those things are important. 

Digital dentistry – we saw this particularly during the pandemic, people started to become more accepting of remote monitoring of dentistry. That can be a good tool as well. It all helps to cut down on travel to and from the practice. 

The other big chunk of your carbon footprint is the procurement. So, how many times does the truck turn up with another order of just one thing? Can you combine your ordering and make it more sporadic so there are fewer deliveries to the practice? 

A big focus on carbon is something that people can do. Look at your procurement to make sure that it’s as sustainable as possible and you’re limiting those appointments. 

Recycling everything possible, making sure that you have the right bins, that you’ve invested, if you need to, in curbside recycling. If your council doesn’t provide that, make sure cans, bottles, paper etc are being recycled as much as possible. 

The issue around single use is an interesting one because a lot of people will say: ‘We use paper cups chairside rather than plastic cups, and that’s better’. 

That point is largely moot, because it’s not about what the cup is made out of, it’s the fact that it’s used once. 

It’s the energy and resources that have gone into making that cup which is the problem. A lot of my clients use stainless steel cups chairside, and I guess we focus on that because it’s the most visible way of showing patients that you’re doing something different for the environment. 

There’s lots of things you can’t do that are all hidden, but certainly we can change the cups chairside. And anything you can swap out to reduce the amount of resources that you’re using either once or that you can replace with reusable, that’s a good thing to do. 

Energy is a big issue at the moment, and I think it’s interesting that people are now starting to adopt the behaviours that sustainability professionals have been trying to get them to adopt for years. 

But now that the energy prices are so high, turning your heating down, making sure you haven’t got heating on while the windows are wide open, switching off lights, using energy-efficient appliances all help to save money. 

Be as efficient with energy as possible. If you can go to a renewable supplier, that’s a great way to become more sustainable. And it will seriously impact your carbon footprint because you’re using energy from sustainable sources.

I’ve got two clients that are designing their practices in the most sustainable way possible. 

They’re putting ground source heat pumps in rather than having gas-fired central heating. The flooring is different because they’re using more sustainable materials. 

There’s clay going on the walls rather than plaster because it absorbs carbon, and they’re using low-emission paints. So, you can do it on the construction side as well. 

Saving water is another important way to save resources and be more sustainable. Low flow taps can save you 96% of the water that you would use. 

Bio cleaners – there are now medical-grade cleaners available that are all plant-based. So, there aren’t any harmful chemicals going onto the work surfaces. It’s better for the environment and your staff. 

So, all those things can make you more sustainable, as well as the basic things. For example, getting your coffee and tea from a fair-traded source because it’s a more sustainable, transparent supply chain.  

I think what often happens is that people don’t know where to start, so they do nothing. These are some ideas to get started.

There are clearly lots of solutions that someone can take. What might be holding a practice back from becoming more sustainable? How can they overcome some of those obstacles? 

I think perception of cost is often an issue. People think that everything is going to be more expensive if it’s more sustainable. It’s important to recognise that sustainability is an investment. 

 As well as being a longer-term investment in everybody’s future, it’s an investment that pays off because of the improved perception that you get from patients and the improved engagement you get from teams.

So, although there may be some short-term things that you need to do to overcome the cost issue, once people dig under the surface, often they find that it saves them money.

A lot of my clients at the moment are saving money because they’re using less energy.

Time can be an issue. The time to think about it and the time to put it into practice. 

Some people lack ideas, thinking: ‘Where do we even start?’. I think often the will is there, but people don’t know where to start. So, it’s important for them to get organised. 

There are loads of resources out there – Dental Susnet is a great resource in terms of a website. It’s a free website, you can join the network and they run courses on sustainability. 

Dental CSR certification has all of its standards published for free, so you can follow those even if you don’t do the standard itself. 

So, I think the perception of cost, time and lack of organisation are obstacles. If you can get yourself organised and start with the simple things, that’s often the best way to get going.

You mentioned that sustainability is an investment into the business. As a business, how can being sustainable set you apart? 

I think the interesting thing is that the pandemic accelerated some trends that were already on the way. Even pre-pandemic, the data tells us that 88% of consumers expect a business to do social and environmental good as a normal day-to-day part of their business practises. 

About three fourths of millennials expect and look for good CSR in an employer. So, with both consumers and staff, you’re increasing your chances of attracting the right kind of people by being more sustainable.

I think the companies that have really invested in sustainability and shown their credentials authentically over the last few years are benefiting from that. And the converse, of course, is true because if you don’t do it, then you’ll appear uncaring. 

But certainly, making the investment in sustainability and responsibility pays off in those two ways because you will command higher loyalty, greater trust, greater reputation with consumers and you’re going to satisfy that millennial generation’s 75% of the workforce that are looking for sustainability in employers. 

The chances are that you’re going to find better people and more value-driven people if you’re making those credentials front and centre, so that’s going to help with your recruitment and retention as well. 

And as more patients might look for a dentist specifically with a sustainable practice, what would be the risk of a practice not becoming more sustainable? 

I think the danger is that you become less relevant. A friend of mine, Chris Barrow, has started talking a lot about values, and an expression of your values. 

He says that when patients look for treatment nowadays, particularly private treatment, and they’re shopping around, they’re not just interested in the customer service or the clinical excellence, they’re looking for an expression of your values. 

Sustainability and responsibility are a great way to do that, as well as showing that you’re human, that you’re approachable, and that you care about the same things that the typical patient cares about. 

If you don’t make those values explicit, then people may go elsewhere and that’s certainly what the data tells us. 

So, it’s not as simple as: ‘If you’re not sustainable, then you won’t get any business.’ However, you are making the chances of your business appearing caring less likely, and you’re not putting those values that are so important to people nowadays front and centre.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

I think the important thing is that sustainability can really trap people in the headlights. They think: ‘Sustainability… how do we even get started?’

All I would do is encourage people to talk to their teams. Somebody asked me last week at one of my presentations, ‘how do I start tomorrow?’ Your team will know ways that you can be more sustainable. 

So, start with those ideas, take action and then look at the main areas, the ones that I’ve described earlier, the resources that are at Dentalcsr.co.uk and on the Dental Susnet webpage. Look at those resources and decide which things you’re going to do. I’ve got free guides on my website as well. 

Bear in mind that to get all of this done takes time. But have a plan, start small and build things up from there. 

As long as you’re on the right trajectory, you’re going to start feeling better about things and you can continue that journey because it’s not a one and done, it’s a continual process.

Things are changing so quickly. 

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