By Ina Pockrass
Dentistry is first and foremost a healing profession. We’re in this to help people enjoy chewing and absorbing the nutrients in food, flash a winning smile and be at ease kissing a loved one. Yet unbeknownst to most dentists, our practice contributes significantly to the Earth’s heavy load. It doesn’t have to be this way.
We must come to grips with the fact that the waste that leaves our practices doesn’t go away. We all inhabit this one little blue planet, and we must consider future generations when we make choices for our dental practices and our lives.
By embracing abundant high technology and good old common sense, we can be part of dentistry’s clean, green and highly profitable future. Here’s how:
Reduce Waste and Prevent Pollution
By reducing waste and pollution on the front end, there is less to deal with on the back end. If you’ve converted to digital imaging, you’ve set up the foundation for a high-tech, green dental practice, and you don’t have to deal with the disposal of lead foils and toxic x-ray fixer from conventional x-rays. While most dentists delegate waste compliance to a team member, many don’t realize that the dentist remains personally responsible for proper hazardous waste disposal through the life cycle of that waste. The best way to eliminate liability for toxic waste is to not create it in the first place.
Statistics on the penetration of digital imaging in US dental offices are between 25 and 33%. Good, but that also means that between 66 and 75% of the 120,000 US dental offices still use traditional x-rays. These practices require disposal of 4.8 million lead foils and 28 million liters of x-ray fixer every year.
Interestingly, about the same percentages (between 25 and 33%) of dental offices have installed amalgam separators. Ask the 50% of dentists who self-identify as mercury-free, and you’ll find a large number don’t have a separator and believe they don’t need one because they no longer place amalgam. Wrong. Whether you put the material in or take it out, you should have a separator. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates at least 3.7 tons, or 7,400 pounds (annually), of dentist-generated, mercury-containing waste ends up burdening our local wastewater treatment plants, is incinerated with other trash, poisons our air or finds its way into fertilizer used to grow our food. The ADA is on board with separators, having signed an agreement with the EPA supporting separator use in every dental office generating amalgam waste.
Two more big contributors to dental office waste are single-use, disposable patient barriers and sterilization methods. These might seem cheaper and safer in the short run, but the opposite is true in the long run. Reusable cloth methods have been used in this country’s best hospital operatory rooms for decades, cost-effectively protecting practitioners and patients while keeping millions of pounds of trash out of our overburdened landfills.
Dentistry’s disposable methods account for a staggering amount of waste each year: the dumping of 1.7 billion sterilization pouches and 680 million patient barriers. The bulk of this trash comes from covering everything in reams of plastic – plastic that comes from scarce and ever-harder-to-find oil – and barriers that are thrown out after each patient. If you’re still using disposable barriers, take two minutes at the end of the day to examine the amount of trash your office has to get rid of. The dental office of the future utilizes hospital-tested reusable methods, combined with effective, planet-safe surface disinfectants, generating about 90% less trash.
Save Energy, Water & Money
Conservation is a critical part of dentistry’s green future. It is the mantra of green dentistry because it extends the life of our precious resources and keeps more money in our bank accounts. Many energy-saving modalities don’t require you to purchase anything; all you have to do is stop wasting the energy for which you pay but don’t use. The next time you are ready to leave your office, scan each operatory and business area and look for those ubiquitous blinking lights emanating from electrical equipment. Chances are there are computers, intraoral cameras, televisions and lights left on when no one is in the office. By turning off these items every time the office is closed, you’ll reduce your “phantom load”: the energy drawn by an item that is plugged into the grid but not in use. Watch your electric bill decrease!
An exciting development in dentistry’s future is the recent introduction of energy- and water-saving dental equipment. Take LED operatory lights, which can reduce electrical energy consumption by 70%, eliminating the need for expensive halogen bulbs and allowing for easier placement of composite restorations.
Several manufacturers have engineered waterless vacuum systems, which save between 350 and 500 gallons of water per day, per dental office – enough to fill an average-size swimming pool throughout the course of the year. If every US dental office installed one of these waterless systems, we would collectively conserve as many as nine billion gallons of clean, drinkable water a year – water we are now literally pouring down the drain. Stop and think about how we take water for granted, how dependent modern dentistry is on reliable access to clean water and how one out of every six people on the planet already lives without safe drinking water.
Now think about how green dentistry can put more “green” in your pocket. To get the facts, the Eco-Dentistry Association retained a respected consulting firm, Natural Logic, to analyze green dental innovations and determine whether each costs or saves money, and the rate of return on investment.
The data showed that by incorporating toward green practices, dentists can improve their own bottom lines by as much as $50,000 a year. Energy-efficient lighting saves the average dental practice more than $600 a year on energy expenses, while steam sterilizers save more than $800 a year, from both energy and chemical purchase savings. Switching to cloth infection control and sterilization methods can put as much as $2,300 in annual savings into the dentist’s pocket. While digital imaging has a significant up-front cost, once installed, it saves almost $9,000 a year, and you begin realizing return on investment in just six months. Tooth-colored restorations increase practice revenues by as much as $37,000 a year because the more technique-sensitive materials command a higher billing rate.
Green Dentistry is High-Tech Dentistry
It was only about fifty years ago that dentistry was revolutionized by air turbine-driven handpieces and low-risk local anesthetics. Since then, the technology revolution has escalated, with new innovations appearing every few years, not every fifty. We know this trend will continue, and high-tech innovations will continue to make the practice of dentistry more reliable, easier on practitioners and more cost-effective.
It turns out that almost every high-tech innovation in dentistry also has environmental benefits. Take CAD/CAM systems. Yes, there is the chair-time advantage of single-visit restorations, but consider that single visits by patients means travel to your office is reduced by half. Consider also that CAD/CAM systems eliminate the need for disposable impression materials and the freight and transportation impacts associated with sending restorations back and forth to a lab.
Green Dentistry Is Wellness-Based Dentistry
Every branch of medicine is moving from a disease-based model to a wellness-based model – one that is centered upon prevention, early detection and less invasive treatments. Dentistry’s green future embraces this wellness-based model because our profession is literally on the front lines of total body wellness. We know now that a healthy mouth is the cornerstone of a healthy person.
Practicing wellness-based dentistry allows you to reach a burgeoning market of dental consumers, specifically the 25 to 33% of Americans who are values-based consumers using an environmental and wellness-based litmus test to guide their purchases. In 2010, these consumers – the majority of whom are women – spent nearly $300 billion on goods and services that matched their values. Tap into this market and you’ll tap into people who become evangelists for your practice, reducing external marketing costs and bringing high-quality patients more willingly and frequently into your chair.
If you want your practice and our planet to thrive, it’s time to become part of dentistry’s clean, green and profitable future. Take your exceptional patient care to the next level by getting your dental practice GreenDOC™ Certified, the dental industry’s only green certification program that analyzes everything from your built environment to your daily administration to dental processes and materials. The GreenDOC™ Certification Program provides a road map for implementing over 180 green initiatives and allows you to achieve Bronze, Silver or Gold Certification, based upon a points system.
The Eco-Dentistry Association can help you transform your practice and spread the word about your planetary stewardship, helping you reach more patients. There is no better time than today to start conserving precious resources and reducing your environmental impact. The planet, your patients and your bottom line will thank you.
Ina Pockrass is co-founder of the Eco-Dentistry Association.