Journey toward sustainability

March 1, 2011
The exciting challenge is to evaluate each step of your carbon footprint

The exciting challenge is to evaluate each step of your carbon footprint

by Judy Stein, RDH

I invite you to join me on an exciting journey toward personal and professional sustainability. I love the concepts of sustainability. I get very excited whenever I think of reducing my carbon footprint, or assessing my environmental impact. Every time I look into the eyes of children I am treating, I feel a commitment to their future as well as my own. But how can we exist in a world of single-use prophy angles and disposable saliva ejectors and still seek to become more sustainable? I challenge you to stay with me on this journey toward professional and personal sustainability.

Let's begin with broadening our understanding of sustainability. This term is much more than just being "green" or "environmentally friendly." It entails looking at the entire picture – people, planet, and profit. To be sustainable is to "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development). We must continue to provide care at a level of excellence without compromising the future of our business, ourselves, and those we serve, or the planet we exist on. Simply put, everything we do today will influence tomorrow.

Yes, dentistry can become more sustainable. We can use sustainability principles to improve our connection with the people we encounter, reduce our environmental impact on this planet, improve our business profit margins, and better care for ourselves as well. Join me as I walk through several scenarios to see how sustainability plugs into our professional and personal world of dentistry. With each of the following examples, I evaluate products and actions against their relationship to people, planet, and profit.

Paper vs. plastic bags

As a courtesy to patients, many dental practices provide a take-home bag of dental products. The items often include a toothbrush, sample of toothpaste, and/or container of floss. How does this action play into the world of sustainability? Simply compare these following scenarios with the effect a take-home bag has on people, planet, and profit before deciding your course of action.

  • You could create new habits by asking patients if they really need a bag before you place take-home items into it. Many consumers today believe in "reduce, reuse, recycle" and are also now adding "refuse" to that cliché. Yes, many consumers will now refuse items they don't have a need for, especially single-use plastics such as plastic bags. This action is certainly the least costly, most environmentally friendly and does not seriously compromise the patients you serve.
  • If your practice still wants to provide a courtesy bag for patients, more environmentally friendly and less costly substitute bags are now available that are just as durable and useful. Take some time to compare plastic bags to recycled paper bags. You will find many options in both categories and may be happily surprised to discover a recycled paper courtesy bag that is more environmentally friendly, profit friendly, and yet still provide this service to the patients you care for.

Product duplications

Walk with me now to your supply shelves where you may find, as I did, a few duplicate items that needed some sustainability accountability.

Again, as a courtesy to many of our patients, we give away free samples of different products. Unfortunately, two or three different products that are very similar in performance are on the supply shelves. This discovery affects the sustainability formula of people, planet, and profit. Choices need to be made.

  • Product duplication creates more strain on your supply budget. Instead of ordering one product in bulk, which reduces costs and packaging waste, you may be ordering small quantities of different products, which escalate costs and waste. This scenario does not always look favorable when held up to the profit or planet parts of the sustainability equation. There are times when stopping here is appropriate, although I challenge you to see if another option could create a win-win result and satisfy all three components of the sustainability formula of people, planet, and profit.
  • After careful evaluation of similar products, you may be able to choose just one product as your free giveaway sample to your patients. The other similar product could be shown as a display sample, thereby still helping you serve your patients thoroughly as they become aware of alternatives to a single product. Again, this scenario can positively benefit the planet and profit element of sustainability, as well as meet the needs of the people we serve. Whatever decision you choose, sound reasoning can allow you to make needed choices with confidence, whether you reduce product duplications or continue providing several product choices.

In addition, here a few more possible scenarios you may encounter in your dental practice.

  • Dental office lighting. Lighting is a critical element in any dental facility and should be evaluated for improvement and effectiveness. Many lighting options are available that can reduce our energy dependence, lessen our negative environmental impact, and ultimately reduce operating costs. In today's lighting market, the standard T12 fluorescent light bulb is one of several lighting options. By choosing to switch out this bulb with a T8, T5, or compact fluorescent light (CFL), you can significantly reduce your carbon footprint on this earth by improving energy efficiency. In operatory areas where specific lighting is required, you may want to work closely with your supply representative to evaluate LED (light emitting diode) options. Always consult with an electrical contractor before making any electrical changes.
  • Lead foil recycling. If you are still using X-ray film, do not forget to recycle your lead foil. Simply place a container for this byproduct next to your developing machine, and the collection process is easy. Contact your X-ray supplier to set up arrangements to recycle this product. The planet would be much healthier if we recycle lead foil rather than dump it into our landfills. This simple action certainly satisfies the requirements of the people, planet, and profit elements of sustainability.
  • Green cleaning products. After current office cleaning products are used up, replace them with more environmentally friendly cleaning products. There are now less costly and healthier cleaning products to choose from. Many cleaning companies are linked into these options if you need recommendations. This small action will speak loudly to your cleaning staff that you care about their health and the planet we live on. I challenge you to make this action profit friendly too.
  • Scrubs to quilts. When the scrubs you have worn have either gone out of style, no longer fit, or have suffered serious work-related flaws and can't be donated, consider scrapping the fabric to be used for a quilt. It is a very simple process to cut fabric up into usable pieces needed to construct a quilt. This colorful patchwork of fabric could then be donated to an agency or charity of your choice. If you are not a quilter, contact a local quilt group and inquire about donating your cleaned fabric for their own use. Again, this action certainly will allow you to contribute to sustaining future generations long after you are finished using your scrubs.
  • Volunteerism. Taking the time to support and volunteer in your community will have tremendous and lasting effects both professionally and personally. Volunteering is a critical element of sustainability as well. You may find many team members already passionately involved in volunteering activities, but I challenge you to see what you can do collectively as an office team.

Some offices respond to the needs of their patients by sending cards of concern or by visiting them when hospitalized. Other dental practices set aside a day to all volunteer at a home-building project for the housing challenges of their community. How about an ongoing food drive collection in your office? This action is very sustainable and simple to organize. Each team member can alternate monthly responsibilities. What an awesome and sustainable commitment for patients who come into your office to witness! This collection can be very neat and tidy. You may even find the patients you serve bringing in items to add to your collection.

Whatever avenue of volunteerism you decide on, remember to use your sustainability formula to compare its effect on people, planet, and profit. You may find it much less costly to organize a food drive vs. taking time off from work to volunteer off-site. Use the sustainability formula to help you make these decisions.

  • Minimize waste. In today's world, we are all required to pay for waste removal. The amount of trash removed from a dental facility varies. If you are not able to eliminate waste, at least try to minimize it. We can absolutely accomplish this goal by condensing box board and recycling other product boxes as well.

Contact the municipal recycling agency and arrange to receive recycling services. If this service is not offered by your municipality, many recycling centers offer, for a small fee, a monthly pickup service of recyclable waste. You may actually reduce waste removal costs by simply recycling appropriate materials. This action can certainly complement the people, planet, and profit elements of sustainability.

Personal sustainability

Another vital piece of sustainability is looking at its effect on you personally. As dental professionals, we are called to remain physically, mentally, and emotionally balanced. This sustainable balance is critical to our success and professional fulfillment.

Why not consider exploring the following new interests that may keep you mentally sustainable? Learn how to play a musical instrument. Audition for a local theater production. Enroll in an academic or creative class. Join a book club.

The physical journey of sustainability can involve cycling or walking to work. Try a new workout such as yoga or ChiRunning. Train for a marathon. Begin a lunch-hour walking club. Find a workout style (Zumba, aerobics, Jazzercise, etc.) that you enjoy and are willing to commit to. Make sure your working space is ergonomically suitable to you. Complement your work practices with ultrasonics when appropriate.

The emotional element of sustainability cannot be ignored either. Volunteer for an organization you care about and can plug into your life. Begin a discipline of daily meditation. Plan and commit to a vacation or even simple retreats away from your professional life. Never hesitate to seek professional support if your emotional life is not healthy.

I hope the preceding personal and professional examples awaken your sustainability thought process. It really is fun and rewarding to begin evaluating how your actions and choices can influence the long-term effects on our planet, people, and profit. You absolutely will experience a very favorable community response when your commitment to sustainability is communicated.

Educate both staff and patients about what exactly sustainability is, and this alone will generate a flow of interest and, ultimately, an exciting new patient base as well. Get this information out in your office newsletter. Communicate your commitment to the local newspaper. Use signage in the office to highlight sustainability actions. Get to know and use proper terms that will communicate your commitment to the families you serve today and tomorrow.

Sustainability really is more than a new corporate buzzword; I believe it can become a lifestyle that will propel us into a future we can prosper from. Don't shy away from beginning this professional and personal journey. Look forward with confidence to have a positive and sustainable impact on our planet, profit, and the people we serve.

Judith M. Stein, RDH, is a 1981 graduate of Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich. Judy has enjoyed a variety of professional opportunities in her hygiene career, is committed to lifelong learning, and is now employed in private practice. The author is an active volunteer in several professional, community, and faith organizations. She can be reached at [email protected].

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