Your office can help sustain the environment
by Diane Peterson, RDH, MEd
Reduce, reuse, and recycle are words we first heard during the early 1970s in conjunction with the first Earth Day. Forty years later, we are still struggling to incorporate these concepts into our daily practice of dentistry. Many guidelines and recommendations help direct and define the way we practice dentistry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set the standards and guidelines that deal with infection control issues, and compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ensures that we have a safe work environment.
How soon will it be before there are guidelines and recommendations that help us establish a more sustainable way to practice dentistry? It is time to be proactive and begin to practice environmentally responsible dentistry. It is time to add a fourth “R” word to the list of reduce, reuse, and recycle, and that is “rethink.” Rethink the tasks and routines that the dental professional does every day, and evaluate how our practice impacts the sustainability of the environment. Can it be done in a more sustainable way that allows you to accomplish what needs to be done yet does not have a negative effect on the quality of life, work environment, or regulatory guidelines?
In the dental workplace, you may already be seeing an increase in the number of health-conscious consumers who are very deliberate about what they purchase and from whom. They are more likely to buy from locally owned businesses, from those that promote health and safety, and from those that commit to environmentally friendly or “green” practices. They are asking questions about your water consumption and the office waste disposal policies to find out how you are contributing to sustainability.
Consumers are concerned with how we are managing the disposal of some of the potentially harmful products that are used in dentistry. It is well known that many products in dentistry have the potential to harm the environment — amalgam, radiographic solutions, sharps, and chemical disinfectants. Over the past decade, there has been great debate over the continued use of many of these dental materials. The debate will continue as we try to ensure the safety and effectiveness of these materials. The use of “best practice” management guidelines and recommendations for the disposal and use of these materials should be followed at all times.
The question then becomes: Are there changes that can be made in the workplace that will have a positive impact on the environment without compromising the work environment? Even small changes in the way we practice dental hygiene will result in immediate improvements. The process of “going green” in the dental office doesn’t need to be time consuming or complicated. It can begin as a simple waste management plan that can slowly be implemented over time with a committed team of professionals. One of the biggest rewards of a green program is that not only is it saving the environment but it is a much more cost effective way of doing business.
Initiating some changes in your workplace should include a review of some of the “best practices” terms often associated with environmentalism and sustainability. Recycling, for example, is very simply the processing of used or waste material so that it can be used again. Biodegradable deals with the ability of a material to decompose naturally. This term can be misleading because the assumption often is made that, if a material is biodegradable, it is harmless. This is not necessarily the case as some materials can harm the environment as they decompose, which makes the biodegradable question more complex. If a material claims to be biodegradable, the next question that needs to be asked is how long does it take to biodegrade and what are the byproducts of the process.
A sustainable or green program in the office can begin just by taking a closer look at each of the 4 R’s and implementing them one by one into your daily routine.
Dental offices dispose of approximately 700 million plastic barriers per year. The dental professional can reduce this number dramatically just by reevaluating how they function in their work space. Take just a few moments and think about how you function within the operatory. Are there ways you can reduce the number of plastic barriers used without compromising infection control protocol?
On a larger scale, paperless charts and digital radiography are the most environmentally friendly ways for a dental office to help sustain the environment. Traditional radiography creates a great deal of unnecessary trash, and the chemical waste and disposal of these materials can be costly. Digital technology is not only cleaner but less radiation can be used to produce an image of similar contrast. Paperless charts are another great way to be green. Although the initial investment for a paperless system can be substantial, the savings from reducing the purchase of paper, as well as the savings to the environment, is priceless.
The next step toward being a more sustainable practice is to take a look at the products and supplies you use on a daily basis. For example, most dental offices use disposable air/water syringe tips and saliva ejectors. Changing to reusable stainless steel air/water syringes and suction tips is a simple and quick way to save on waste and resources.
With the large demand for greener products, many dental supply companies have made the effort to include green product choices for their environmentally conscious consumers. Many even have a special section of their catalog devoted to these products, making it easier for you to find them.
The establishment of a good recycling program in your office is the easiest step to a more sustainable environment. Paper, bottles, and magazines are just a few of the items found in the dental office that can be recycled. Setting up small bins in a central location in the office will make this step easy to implement.
Recycle those old dental instruments. For the past 15 years, Hu-Friedy has offered Environdent, an instrument recycling program. Environdent allows customers to receive value for used, broken, and retipped instruments.
The free Environdent kits provide the information you need to recycle instruments. In addition, if you send off 12 dental instruments following the enclosed directions, you will receive a free Hu-Friedy instrument of your choice with no purchase necessary.
Dental offices also produce a great deal of medical and hazardous waste that needs to be disposed of properly. Make sure your office has an amalgam recovery and recycling program in place, as well as protocol for the proper disposal and handling of sharps, fixer and developer chemicals, and lead foil.
These are just a few of the ways dental offices can reduce, reuse, and recycle their way to being greener and more sustainable. It is time to rethink about our impact on the environment and work toward reducing dentistry’s carbon footprint. Make sustainability a part of your everyday routine starting today.
Diane Peterson, RDH, MEd, is a graduate of the University of Vermont with degrees in dental hygiene, human development, and educational leadership. She is a faculty member at Vermont Technical College where her areas of interest are clinical dental hygiene, public health, and dental materials. Diane presents continuing education programs on the topics of natural care, herbal supplements, and green dentistry.