Sustainable Dentistry: A Comprehensive Guide

Making Progress in Sustainable Dentistry

By Deirdre Dunne, dental hygienist at Bandon Dental

Sustainability is inevitably becoming an essential part of everyday life. Even in the medical world, issues such as how we use and dispose of materials are vital in reducing carbon emissions. Research by the British Dental Association has indicated that dental services currently account for 3% of the National Health Service’s carbon footprint.

Dentists can help safeguard the environment through sustainability while protecting patients’ health. Progress is rapidly being made in all areas of dentistry, from how appointments are allocated to the materials used by dentists. They should enable patients to make informed choices about how they can partake in the sustainability revolution in dentistry.

What is Sustainable Dentistry?

Dental sustainability concentrates on energy efficiency, responsible waste disposal, and reducing the use of plastic. There are also concerns about toxic materials such as mercury being used in fillings. Sustainability policies encourage everyone in dentistry to think more about how they present new ideas to their patients. Even the time it takes to travel to the dental practice needs to be addressed to help comply with sustainable initiatives. But how exactly can sustainable dentistry be put into practice? We explore some of the ways it is achieved.

Single Use Plastics and Hygiene

At the heart of sustainable dentistry is hygiene. High-quality standards must be maintained to ensure patients receive the very best medical care throughout their visits. For example, single use plastic products such as aprons, gloves and cups were introduced to protect patients from the risk of contamination.

However, according to PlasticOceans.org, the plastic that the United Kingdom annually disposes of includes 50% of such single use products. Sustainable dentistry aims to significantly reduce single use plastics by choosing products that can be hygienically prepared between patients. Every dental practice has a decontamination unit where reusable instruments and accessories can be reliably sanitised.

In many green dental practices, single use plastic rinsing cups have already been replaced by those made of biodegradable material. Sustainable measures must be taking effect. Statistics from 2022 collated by the NHS revealed that up to 78% of dental patients rated their experience of dentistry as positive.

Sustainable Dentistry Guide: Dentist tools in metal tray on table close up

Reducing Harmful Materials

The use of amalgam fillings has been very limited since they were started to be phased out in the UK in 2019. Traditionally hard-wearing, these fillings typically contained around 74% of precious metals such as silver and copper. However, it’s the inclusion of at least 3% mercury that has been a major reason behind amalgam reduction.

A report in the Daily Mirror highlighted that having at least eight amalgam fillings contributed to unacceptably high levels of mercury in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of ill health such as stroke and heart disease. Sustainable dentistry now relies on the use of resin or porcelain fillings. These not only have the advantage of being manufactured from preferable materials but are far more aesthetically appealing.

Restructuring X-Rays

According to research published in a Daily Mail article, approximately 12 million X-rays are used per year in Britain. These photographic images are usually transmitted onto small plastic or polyethene sheets. However, they also contain highly toxic compounds such as silver halide crystals that absorb the radiation emitted by the X-rays themselves. These X-ray films are therefore generally regarded as hazardous waste that requires specialist disposal by reputable collectors.

Dental practices that are following sustainable principles have an alternative solution. Digital dental radiography produces three-dimensional images of teeth without the excessive use of radiation. The dentist can study much clearer images that help identify problems more effectively. Sustainability is enhanced as the images remain on screen. They help reduce waste, minimise the risks of radiation for patients, and prevent hazardous materials from contaminating the environment.

Reconsidering the Use of Dental Antibiotics

Statistics referring to the use of antibiotics in England stated that up to 10.8% of antibiotics prescribed within the NHS were used for dentistry. They often include penicillin and tetracyclines. These medicines generally reduce the inflammation caused by abscesses. A traditional method would be draining the abscess manually.

Sustainable dentistry would consider all aspects of a problem before resorting to prescribing antibiotics. A further advantage of restraint is the reduced risk of antibiotic resistance. According to the government’s research, infections that cannot be eliminated by antibiotics continue to increase by around 2.2% each year.

Streamlined Appointments

Using a local dental practice helps reduce carbon emissions. Patients can choose to walk to the surgery instead of using their cars or public transport. In addition, the average course of dental treatment involves several appointments for perhaps a series of fillings.

Sustainable dentistry considers how much treatment a patient may undergo in just one appointment, such as having two fillings at a time instead of one. According to the NHS, 44.5% of dental treatments were for scale and polish procedures rather than painful conditions such as toothache. With reliable instruction from a qualified dental hygienist, many patients should be able to take more responsibility for their oral health.

Prevention is Positive Sustainability

Dental practices continually emphasise the importance of preventing invasive fillings. Unfortunately, according to data from Statista, 90.2% of British adults have at least one filling. Poor dental hygiene generally begins early in life. Almost a quarter of all five-year-old children have approximately 3.4 dental caries, a situation that’s largely due to consuming too many sugary snacks and sweets.

However, every practice usually has a professional dental hygienist that can provide practical advice on looking after one’s teeth throughout an entire lifetime. Prevention is indeed the most reliable method of sustainability in dental care, but regrettably, many adults only think of visiting a dentist when they have a serious dental problem.

E-Mail Notifications and Reminders

Reducing the amount of paper we use is a large part of protecting the environment from carbon emissions. Dental patients can help with sustainability in dentistry by choosing to receive reminders for appointments by email, SMS text or smartphone notifications, instead of through the morning post. A further advantage is that communications by email eliminate the risk of letters being lost in transit. Patients often forget an appointment that was made weeks ago, but receiving an alert on the day can help reduce the inconvenience of missed appointments. Failing to arrive on time for treatment has the potential to increase the overall cost of dental services as compensation for the money lost through a missed appointment.

An Example

Here’s a made-up example illustrating how dentists can follow green practices:

Dr. Green Dental Clinic: A Model of Green Dentistry

Dr. Green is a passionate advocate of sustainable dentistry and runs a dental clinic that prioritizes eco-friendly practices. Here’s how Dr. Green and their team implement green practices in their daily operations:

  1. Energy and Water Conservation: Dr. Green’s clinic is equipped with energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting throughout the facility. Natural light is maximized by strategically placing windows and skylights. Motion sensor lights automatically turn off when rooms are unoccupied. The clinic has also installed low-flow faucets and toilets to minimize water consumption.
  2. Waste Reduction and Recycling: The clinic has embraced a paperless system, utilizing electronic dental records and digital communication for administrative tasks. Patient forms, consent forms, and appointment reminders are all sent electronically. Any remaining paper waste, such as packaging materials, is diligently recycled. The clinic also has separate recycling bins for plastic, glass, and metal waste.
  3. Minimizing Chemical Usage: Dr. Green’s clinic uses non-toxic, biodegradable cleaning agents and sterilization solutions. They have switched to eco-friendly disinfectants that are effective and safer for both the environment and staff. By carefully managing chemical use, the clinic minimizes its impact on air and water quality.
  4. Sustainable Material Selection: Dr. Green prioritizes sustainable material selection. They use biodegradable dental bibs made from renewable resources and offer patients toothbrushes with bamboo handles. The clinic sources eco-friendly dental supplies, including recyclable packaging and compostable suction tips. Digital imaging and CAD/CAM technology are employed to reduce the need for traditional film-based X-rays and associated chemicals.
  5. Responsible Hazardous Waste Management: Dr. Green’s clinic follows strict protocols for handling and disposing of hazardous waste. They have designated storage areas for chemicals, sharps, and expired medications. The clinic works with certified waste management companies to ensure proper disposal of hazardous materials, preventing pollution and contamination.
  6. Patient Education and Prevention: Dr. Green and their team educate patients on sustainable oral health practices during regular check-ups. They emphasize water conservation by advising patients to turn off the tap while brushing and promoting the use of eco-friendly oral care products. Patients receive information about recycling dental products like toothpaste tubes and electric toothbrush heads.

Dr. Green’s dedication to green dentistry sets an example for other dental clinics. They continuously research and implement new strategies to reduce their environmental impact while delivering excellent dental care.

Conclusion

Sustainability in dentistry requires changing how dental practices offer their services. Streamlined appointments and email alerts can help improve efficiency while ensuring patients make fewer visits than usual.

Technical innovations such as detailed digital imaging can help dentists decide on the best course of treatment for a variety of dental procedures. It’s also vital to reducing hazardous waste such as X-ray film, a particularly important part of sustainability.

Patients can be confident that hygiene and the use of alternative, biodegradable accessories safeguard their health every time they visit the dentist. Many dental practices are already following sustainable methods to save energy, time and resources.


About the Author

Deirdre Dunne is the dental hygienist at Bandon Dental, a dental practice in Cork, Ireland.