Tackling Dental Office Waste and Recycling

Interest in adopting green practices to help combat waste, protect the earth and slow climate change is on the rise. Many of us try our best to take reusable bags to the grocery store and reusable cups to our favorite coffee places. Recent surveys suggest that 77% of Americans (and Australians) are actively interested in learning to live more sustainably. Luckily, green dentistry practices are on the rise too.

For reasons ranging from convenience to concerns for patient safety, medical and dental offices tend to use a high volume of disposable products. Single-use plastics are common in dentistry. Fortunately, though, dental offices can still take a few easy steps to reduce dental plastic waste.

Can dentists avoid single-use plastics? How can dentists reduce plastic use? To learn more about how to reduce plastic waste in a dental office, as well as how to recycle in a dental office, read on.

Single-Use Plastics in Dentistry

Dentistry uses several different types of single-use plastics. Single-use plastics are convenient and affordable, and they are useful for providing a high level of patient care and infection control.

Some of the single-use plastics that contribute to the plastic pollution from dentistry include the following:

  • Plastic cups: Many dental practices provide small plastic cups for patients to use to rinse their mouths. Single-use plastic cups are more sanitary than reusable cups, and no one has to spend time washing them. If practices are interested in cutting down on their plastic waste while maintaining a hygienic patient environment, looking into compostable paper cups would be an excellent step.
  • Plastic bitewing covers: Most dental practices also use disposable plastic films to cover the X-ray pieces as patients bite down on them. Using reusable covers could put patients at risk, but cutting down on the use of other plastic products can help reduce the landfill impact of these single-use products.
  • Plastic barrier sleeves: The barrier sleeves used to cover air and water syringes to prevent cross-contamination are usually single-use items as well.
  • Toothpaste tubes and floss containers: Most dental practices — like most U.S. households — throw away their toothpaste tubes and floss containers once they are empty. Looking into a recycling program that accepts these plastics used in dentistry can help cut down on waste.
  • Prophylaxis angles: Most prophylaxis angles, or prophy angles — which attach to the prophy cups that provide toothpaste for polishing — are disposable plastic as well. The prophy cups are typically made of disposable rubber. To help reduce waste, consider investing in reusable metal prophy cups to reduce the single-use items in a dental practice, and see if your practice can use prophy angles made of recycled plastic.
  • Plastic tips: The tips used for air, water and suction devices are typically single-use plastic. Reusable, sterilizable styles are available as well, and these are worth investing in to help cut down on waste.

The Impact of the Health Care Industry’s Waste on the Environment

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States produces about 35 million tons of plastic waste per year. Plastic makes up a significant percentage of our municipal solid waste (MSW), coming in at about 13% of all MSW generation.

Our planet can process some materials, such as cardboard, through biodegradation. But plastic is not biodegradable. It is designed to last for decades, even centuries, without breaking down. Yet in practice, many of us use a plastic item one time and then throw it away.

The EPA reports that only a small amount of plastic — about 8.4% — is recycled for reuse in new products. One of the reasons the United States recycles so little of its plastic is that each specific type of plastic, from #1 to #7, must undergo a different recycling process.

What Happens to Plastic Waste?

What is the life cycle of a typical plastic product? Much of the plastic we throw away goes to landfills or burn piles. In a burn pile, the plastic releases harmful chemicals into the atmosphere immediately as it burns. In a landfill, plastic leaches chemicals slowly, over the years, as it ages.

Though it does not biodegrade, plastic gradually breaks down into tinier and tinier pieces known as microplastics. Over time, these minuscule bits of plastic can end up in our soil, rivers and oceans, where they pollute the earth and water and poison the animals that mistake them for food. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that as far back as 2006, there were 46,000 pieces of floating plastic for every square mile of ocean, and that number is likely much higher now. Plastic debris also causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds annually and kills more than 100,000 marine mammals a year.

As larger organisms consume smaller ones, plastic pieces make their way up the food chain — so animals like raptors and even humans end up ingesting the plastic as well. Ingesting plastic has been linked to metabolic disorders, which can cause obesity, and the disruption of the human endocrine system, which can cause infertility.

Medical and Dental Waste

Medical and dental waste makes a substantial contribution to the pileup of plastic in the earth’s landfills. About 25% of the waste generated in a hospital is plastic, and although similar numbers are difficult to establish for dental practices, we can reasonably assume they are also high. The plastic barriers used to protect patients’ health and prevent procedure complications end up in the garbage at high rates. So do the small plastic cups patients use to rinse their mouths and then throw away, along with many other single-use plastic products. The Eco-Dentistry Association reports that the dental industry generates tons of plastic and other waste: 680 million patient barriers and 1.7 billion sterilization pouches a year, many of which contain plastic, along with 4.8 million lead foils, 3.7 tons of mercury waste and 28 million liters of X-ray fixer annually.

Single-Use Alternatives and Greener Options for Dentists

In truth, quality patient care and infection control can exist harmoniously with green practices. Many single-use items have reusable counterparts that can help practices reduce the plastic footprint in their dental offices.

Below are a few alternatives to single-use plastic for dentists, as well as a few other beneficial green practices to incorporate:

  • Autoclavable items: Dental practices can consider investing in items they can sterilize in the autoclave rather than items that must go into the garbage after one use. Of course, your practice is already putting its stainless steel instruments into the autoclave, but you can also consider switching to products like cloth-based, sterilizable patient bibs, reusable air and water tips, reusable suction tips and stainless steel prophy cups rather than disposable prophy cups for tooth polishing. Another excellent option is to invest in reusable sterilization pouches for the autoclave rather than single-use bags.
  • Recyclable dental items: Recycling dental items is another of the ways dentists can reduce waste. Dental clinics can also consider reusing and recycling non-autoclavable items, such as the lead foil from X-rays. The fixer and developer solutions from X-rays can also potentially provide a way for dental practices to cut down on waste by recycling. Your office can also look into recycling broken dental instruments or instruments that have become too thin to sharpen further.
  • Recyclable packaging: Recycling dental items themselves is an excellent start — but remember the packaging those items come in, too. Toothbrush packaging, toothpaste caps and tubes, used toothbrushes, cardboard toothpaste boxes and empty floss containers are all items that your office can send out for recycling. Cardboard can be broken down and reused in post-consumer recycled products, and the plastic pieces can be separated, shredded, melted down and repurposed in other products as well.
  • Everyday reusable and recyclable items: Going green in a dental practice can include more than just the specialized items used for dentistry. Recycling in the dental office should include everyday items as well. Dentist’s offices can also go green by using cloth towels instead of paper towels, or by implementing recycling programs for common products like paper from paperwork and aluminum cans from the break room. Just remember to wash the cloth towels after every use to eliminate bacteria.
  • Equipment recycling: A clunky old X-ray machine is too big to put into the recycling bin, but that doesn’t mean it has to go to the landfill if it still has more life left in its trusty tubes. Look into working with a program that can take your old equipment off your hands and send it to help establish dental clinics in developing countries. That way, you can modernize your office while minimizing landfill waste and contributing to quality oral care for at-risk populations around the globe.
  • Compostable bags: Another of the single-use plastic alternatives for dentists involves compostable bags. Instead of single-use plastic bags, dental practices can switch to compostable bags that break down easily after use. These bags offer the benefit of being highly biodegradable and environmentally friendly. Some compostable bags are made of corn, potato or soy fibers, and they are sturdy and reliable while in use but biodegrade readily afterward. Others contain additives that allow them to break down naturally when exposed to the UV radiation in sunlight.

Promoting green practices and reducing plastic waste in dentistry can generate a few different benefits:

  • Office satisfaction: Green practices help dental offices gain the satisfaction of knowing they are doing their part to help keep the earth green and healthy. Being able to reuse and recycle dental items can give your office the peace of mind of knowing you’re making a difference for our environment, our communities and the generations who will follow us.
  • Customer satisfaction: Just as important is patient perception. Using reusable and recyclable items in the office lets your clientele see your good stewardship and social conscience in action. Clients who care about the environment, the climate and eco-friendly practices — and most dentists likely have many such clients — will appreciate your efforts. They will also reward your efforts with continued loyalty and rave reviews to other potential patients.
  • Cost savings: Reusing dental items and other items around the office helps cut down on excessive expenditures as well. When you can reuse dental items like bibs, tips and prophy cups, you reduce the amount of your budget you have to designate for the purchase of new items. You could use the extra cash to give hard-earned raises, buy a new piece of high-tech dental equipment you’ve been eyeing or save for unexpected bumps down the road.
  • High sanitary and asepsis standards: Just about every dental office wants to give patients the best and safest dental experience it can. Fortunately, using reusable items in the office is just as safe as using disposable items. By sterilizing reusable items in the autoclave or laundering items like towels on high heat, you can clamp down on the spread of germs and create a safe, sterile environment for your patients, all while continuing to do your part for the environment.

Recycling Old Instruments

Dental office recycling options also include programs for instruments. Recycling old instruments is one of the best dental practices to reduce waste as well.

Many dental instruments contain 400 series stainless steel. This material, along with other types of stainless steel, is recyclable. Sending stainless steel dental instruments out to be recycled after they become worn helps keep recyclable materials from cluttering up landfills. It also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide and other pollution emitted from the production of new stainless steel for new instruments.

ProDentUSA Instruments for Change

If your dental practice is interested in recycling old instruments, consider participating in a recycling program such as ProDent’s Instruments for Change program. Instruments for Change collects used dental instruments and sends them out for sharpening and refurbishment. After that, though the instruments may not be the newest and flashiest, they are valuable for use in communities that might not otherwise receive dental care. Instruments for Change sends the refurbished instruments to clinics in these areas to help provide free, much-needed and at times life-saving oral care around the world.

In some cases, instruments sent through the program are broken or too worn for us to salvage. In that case, we melt down the metal and donate it back to the medical industry for further use.

Any dental practice can participate in our Instruments for Change program — it is open to instruments from any manufacturers, not just ProDentUSA instruments. All you have to do is sterilize the old instruments, package them, fill out the Instruments for Change form and ship everything to us. We’ll take care of the rest. And for every seven instruments sent in for recycling, a dental practice can choose a ProDentUSA hand instrument to receive for free as a token of our gratitude.

One ProDent Success Story

One ProDent success story we take tremendous pride in involves the work of Dr. Dori Columbus in Wakiso District, Uganda. Dr. Columbus, a dentist from New Hampshire, took her team to set up a free dental clinic in Wakiso District to serve patients from remote villages who could not otherwise access dental care. Her team saw more than 120 patients in just three days, many of those patients requiring extractions, fillings or more complex care. The team also donated their time to provide dental services for 133 children at the Kankobe Children’s Home.

Dr. Columbus is just one of many dental providers working to make a difference around the globe with the help of recycled dental instruments donated through ProDent’s Instruments for Change. With the assistance of donations from dental practices around the United States, we can support dental providers in their work to change lives.

Contact ProDentUSA for Recycled Steel Dental Instruments and Dental Instrument Recycling

When you’re looking for ways to incorporate green dentistry best practices into your office, work with ProDentUSA for innovative, reliable solutions. Through our green dentistry supplies and programs, we help spread smiles, one instrument at a time.

The recycled steel we use in our instruments lends itself both to sustainability and to quality, high-performance instruments that enhance the work of your practice. We back our instruments with what we call the ProDent Promise: designed to last, guaranteed to satisfy. And participating in our recycling program helps dental practices conserve resources and improve lives around the world through free dental care.

Contact us today to learn more.