Recycling lead

Nov. 1, 2000
When building a product, manufacturers balance various objectives. The product must work, obviously, and it must be easy to use. Safeguards ensure safe usage. In addition, the item must be designed so that it will not harm the environment.

Kodak program helps keep lead waste from X-rays friendly to the environment.

Richard W. Brown

When building a product, manufacturers balance various objectives. The product must work, obviously, and it must be easy to use. Safeguards ensure safe usage. In addition, the item must be designed so that it will not harm the environment.

One of the most intriguing challenges manufacturers face is how to meet all of these objectives. A great example is child-proof caps for medicine bottles. When pharmaceutical companies first switched to child-proof caps, many people discovered they made it far too difficult for adults to open medicine bottles. Newer designs come closer to meeting both objectives: ease of use and ensuring the safety of children.

Building an intraoral film is very similar. For example, all intraoral films are packaged with a thin sheet of lead foil. The lead foil is critical to the film design for two reasons. First, the foil minimizes the backscatter of X-ray radiation, ensuring good image quality. Secondly, it blocks X-ray radiation from penetrating past the film itself. This helps to minimize the patient`s exposure to X-ray radiation.

Although lead contributes significantly to the patient`s safety and the film`s effectiveness, lead is regulated as a hazardous waste in many municipalities. In other words, in your town or city, it may not be legal to throw it away with the rest of the office trash.

So the first question is: Why use lead at all? Why not find another material to use in its place?

There are a number of answers to this question.

First, lead is an ideal material for shielding radiation. It is dense and stable. Of all the elements found in nature, lead is one of the very best for blocking X-ray radiation. This is a major reason why lead is used in other radiation safety equipment, including the aprons you and your patients wear during X-ray procedures.

Because lead is such an effective radiation shield, only a very thin layer is needed in an intraoral film packet. This alludes to another advantage of lead. Film manufacturers are able to keep film packets from becoming too bulky.

Lead also has mechanical properties that are highly useful. It is easy to fabricate. This helps keep manufacturing costs down. It is also a fairly easy substance to recycle. Used lead can be re-smelted and incorporated into a number of products.

Finally, lead is readily available. Other materials with comparable qualities are considerably expensive. Using them in intraoral film would drive the price up substantially.

The environmental issue

The benefits of using lead in intraoral dental film are substantial. The next question becomes: How can manufacturers ensure that the lead in intraoral film will satisfy environmental issues? Kodak has developed a lead recycling program to help us keep lead out of landfills, where it might have an environmental impact.

Kodak has many recycling programs. In fact, recycling is part of a corporate-wide vision of cradle-to-grave product stewardship. Our responsibility for a product doesn`t end when you buy it from us. Instead, we consider where that product will end up once it has reached the end of its useful life. For example, we have a program to help photofinishers recycle one-time-use cameras. When you return one of these cameras to a participating photofinisher, the photofinisher removes the film to process your pictures, then sends the camera body back to us. Since this program was begun in 1990, we have recycled over 250 million one-time-use cameras. This means we have diverted 41 million pounds of waste from the waste stream.

We have programs in place to help customers recycle snapshot film canisters, motion picture print film, and various product packaging materials. Through a menu of silver recovery services and products, we help photofinishers, including dental offices, capture and recycle silver for recycling.

How are you disposing of the lead in your intraoral film packets today? If you are throwing it away with the rest of your office trash, you may want to stop for two reasons.

First, sending lead to a landfill may not be legal in your community. If you are not sure what the regulations are, you can find out by calling the agency responsible for waste management regulations in your municipality. Kodak Environmental Services - a group within Kodak that helps professional customers with environmental questions - can also help get you started. They can help you figure out which agency or agencies you may need to contact. Kodak Environmental Services can be reached at (716) 477-3194.

Second, even if there are no restrictions on how you dispose of lead in your community, recycling is still the right thing to do. It keeps lead out of landfills, where it may not be as manageable from an environmental perspective.

In addition, when businesses practice good environmentalism on a voluntary basis, it can prevent the need for regulations. This helps keep government costs down, and promotes better relationships between businesses and local government agencies.

Finally, recycling helps give your dental practice a positive reputation in your community. Publicizing your recycling efforts in office posters or literature, in Yellow Pages ads, or even through word-of-mouth helps make your practice stand out in a positive way.

Ready to recycle?

If you are ready to start recycling intraoral lead foil, first examine your options.

Some communities have programs for disposing of regulated materials, including lead. If your community has such a program, contact the agency in charge to find out whether they take lead, and, if so, what they do with the lead they collect.

You can also join a recycling program like Kodak`s. Through our program, open to dental practices in the United States (with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, because of shipping restrictions) and Canada, we can help you recycle your lead. All lead that is collected is re-smelted, along with other recycled lead, for use in manufacturing new products.

We`ve designed our program to make it as simple as possible to participate. First, contact our customer support department (800) 933-8031 in the United States or (800) 465-6325 in Canada to sign up. We send a container for you to use to store used lead foil pieces. Once you receive the container, place it in a clean, dry, accessible area in your darkroom. Then, as you prepare film for developing, separate the lead from the other contents of the film packet. Put the lead foil in the recycling container. Dispose of the vinyl and paper following whatever procedures are necessary for handling that type of waste in your community.

It takes about a year for the average dental practice to collect enough lead foil -usually around 7-10 pounds` worth - to fill the container. After it is full, you call United Parcel Service. UPS picks up the container. Kodak provides pre-addressed UPS labels to make it easy for you to prepare the container for shipping.

The package is shipped to a lead recycling center. They acknowledge its receipt with a letter, which they mail to you. This document proves that you managed the lead properly.

It`s important to note that this recycling center is not equipped to handle potentially bio-hazardous materials. The center will reject any container if its contents are contaminated with blood or other biohazards. You need to keep the contents dry and avoid contamination by substances like processing chemicals.

The fee Kodak charges for this recycling service only covers our costs for producing the carton and shipping the container to you. It also covers your costs for shipping the container to the recycling center.

We make no profit from the recycling program. Instead, charging dental practices that do participate lets us avoid adding the cost of the program to our upfront film prices. Instead, we give you a choice. If you believe the program has value, you can participate. If you can find other ways to dispose of your lead in an environmentally responsible way, you have that choice as well.

At Kodak, we routinely review every material that we use in all of our products, from the packaging of our film to the chemicals we use to make our film processing chemistries. One purpose of our review is to understand its environmental impact, from manufacture, through use, and then disposal. We call this "Design for the Environment." Analyzing our products has helped us reduce our use of various regulated materials, build products that are easier to re-use and recycle, and design programs like our intraoral film lead recycling service.

Our intraoral film lead recycling program also demonstrates how our expertise and leadership position in the dental imaging industry can benefit dental practices. But whether you join our program or find other ways to recycle the lead foil in your used film packets, we encourage you to find some way to keep this material out of landfills. Like all recycling, proper handling of lead recycling makes good business sense - and is always the right thing to do.

Richard W. Brown, marketing manager, United States and Canada, for Eastman Kodak Company dental products, helps oversee the group`s portfolio of imaging products and services, including the launch of Kodak InSight Intraoral Film earlier this year.