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Embracing sustainable dentistry: What your dental practice can do to help the planet

Dec. 12, 2023
Sustainable dentistry bridges dental health and environmental well-being. Read on for actionable ways your dental practice can do its part to help the planet.

Sustainable dentistry bridges dental health and environmental well-being, championing green practices, social responsibility, and economic wisdom. At my practice, we revolutionize dental care with a commitment to sustainability, integrating eco-friendly materials, minimally invasive techniques, and innovative practices to enhance both patient and planetary wellness.

Amid numerous global concerns, climate change emerges as a prominent issue, as revealed by a recent Pew Research Center survey. With a median of 75% across 19 countries in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region identifying global climate change as a significant threat, it becomes imperative for us to reconsider what we’re doing at our practices. Discover the transformative steps my practice has embraced in response to this urgent need.1

The global environmental challenge

Rising temperatures and sea levels and intense weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves are becoming our new normal. This is climate change, and it results from our burning fossil fuels and rampant deforestation.2 The smog hanging over busy cityscapes is air pollution, which the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates causes 7 million premature deaths annually.3 Agricultural runoff, sewage discharge, and industrial waste are muddying waters, harming aquatic life, and compromising health.

You might also be interested in: What holistic dentistry is (and isn't)

Some 2 billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water, and the UN suggests that by 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in water stress regions.4 Recent studies show micro-plastics from plastic ocean pollution in human blood, lungs, and heart tissue.5-8 Micro-plastics can be ingested or inhaled and trigger inflammation and cause toxicity.9-11 

The COVID-19 pandemic offered a glimpse of the positive impact of reduced human activity on the environment due to lockdowns and travel restrictions that temporarily reduced carbon emissions and air pollution levels.12 According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world will have to reach net zero emissions by the year 2050.13 If nothing changes, we have seven years before we reach a tipping point.14,15

Dentistry’s environmental impact

It’s a complex web of issues that extends well beyond dental practices, but how we practice can make a difference. Currently, dentistry is responsible for contributing 3% of the overall carbon footprint of the health-care industry.16 Masks, gloves, bibs, and packaging contribute to the plastic pollution problem. Dental equipment, lighting, and HVAC systems consume energy and add to greenhouse gas emissions. Water usage in dental practices affects water scarcity and quality. Hazardous dental materials are harmful if not disposed of properly, and may be tough to recycle.17-19 

The benefits of sustainable dentistry

Sustainable dentistry isn’t just a fad; it’s a prescription for a healthier planet and thriving dental practices. By embracing eco-friendly practices, dental professionals can reduce their environmental footprint, cut costs, improve patient experiences, meet regulations, fulfill social responsibilities, and boost their reputation. It’s time for the dental community to act and pave the way for a greener, more sustainable future.

Embracing sustainable dentistry practices

In 2023, more than 60% of consumers sought to make a positive impact on the environment, but going solo doesn’t suffice. More consumers are now asking companies to step up with their sustainability efforts. Looking ahead to 2024, the vibe is about teamwork to have a big global impact. So, every organization needs to own up to their carbon footprint and show they're serious about doing their part for the environment. 20

Some dental practices are already transitioning into sustainable dentistry practices. Here are some of the things we do differently at the practice I manage.

Sustainability is at the core of our philosophy.

Prevention is the cornerstone of our approach, and we emphasize minimally invasive techniques that preserve healthy natural tissues.

To ensure that our interventions last longer and reduce the need for frequent treatments, we are committed to using high-quality, long-lasting, BPA-free dental resins and plant-based dental therapeutics.

We commit to safe metal amalgam removal. In line with our holistic patient care approach, we promote early detection and diagnosis of systemic diseases, lessening the strain on additional health care resources.

We also employ noninvasive salivary diagnostics, eliminating the guesswork and reducing the need for labor-intensive treatments.

To reduce waste and save time, we have integrated digital scanners in our practice, minimizing the need for resource-intensive impressions.

We have adopted paperless practices and implemented office waste reduction measures. Apart from having traditional recycling bins available throughout the office, we offer patients the opportunity to dispose of hard-to-recycle materials in our in-office zero waste box.

Additionally, our in-office laboratory and on-site specialties reduce our carbon footprint by limiting travel.

While these initiatives collectively embody our dedication to sustainable dental practices, we remain committed to the ongoing pursuit of even more environmentally conscious practices.

What is dentistry currently doing in terms of sustainability?

In 2014, hygienists raised concerns about plastic microbeads in toothpaste, prompting Crest to commit to a gradual phase-out of this ingredient.21 However, a 2023 study highlights the ongoing need for increased awareness and action in the effort to ban these microplastics, which are still in use worldwide.22 

As health-care professionals, we need to be informed about the contents of the items we endorse, making this knowledge a cornerstone of our recommendations to patients. Fortunately, there is a growing number of companies dedicated to eco-friendly dental hygiene products.

For those who may not be ready to switch brands entirely, there are recycling programs that responsibly handle typically nonrecyclable plastic waste, turning it from trash into a sustainable resource. Taking steps toward sustainable dentistry can begin with something as simple as placing a recycling container in your office break room or opting for eco-friendly commuting options. While we face significant challenges, the path to solutions can often start with these smaller, yet meaningful, actions.

Brittany Cox, RDH, a dental hygienist with over a decade of experience, is dedicated to enhancing oral health and community well-being. She is raising a family deeply rooted in regenerative practices and a homesteading lifestyle and aspires to live sustainably and pass these values to future generations. Brittany’s unwavering commitment to her community fuels her anticipation for a future where she can leverage her expertise for positive transformation. As a prominent opinion leader in sustainable dentistry, she unites her passion for sustainability and oral health, contributing significantly to the field.


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2.     AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023. IPCC. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-cycle/

3.     Air pollution impact. World Health Organization (WHO). https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_2

4.     Summary progress update 2021: SDG 6 – water and sanitation for all. UN-Water. https://www.unwater.org/sites/default/files/app/uploads/2021/12/SDG-6-Summary-Progress-Update-2021_Version-July-2021a.pdf

5.     Jung YS, Sampath V, Prunicki M, Aguilera J, Allen H, LaBeaud D, Veidis E, et al. Characterization and regulation of microplastic pollution for protecting planetary and human health. Environmental Pollution. December 15, 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0269749122016566

6.     Amato-Lourenço LF, Carvalho-Oliveira R, Júnior GR, dos Santos Galvão L, Ando RA, Mauad T. Presence of airborne microplastics in human lung tissue. J Hazard Mater. 2021;416:126124. doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2021.126124 

7.     Jenner LC, Rotchell JM, Bennett RT, Cowen M, Tentzeris V, Sadofsky LR. Detection of microplastics in human lung tissue using μFTIR spectroscopy. Sci Total Environ. 2022;831:154907. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.154907 

8.     Krishnan KA. Systematic review on the impact of micro-nanoplastics exposure on human health and diseases. Biointerface Res. Appl. Chem. 2023; 13(4):1-12. doi: 10.33263/BRIAC134.381

9.     Jiang B, Kauffman AE, Li L, et al. Health impacts of environmental contamination of micro- And nanoplastics: A review. Environ Health Prev Med. 2020;25(1):1-15. doi:10.1186/s12199-020-00870-9 

10.  Stock V, Böhmert L, Coban G, et al. Microplastics and nanoplastics: Size, surface and dispersant – What causes the effect? Toxicol Vitr. 2022;80:105314. doi:10.1016/j. tiv.2022.105314 

11.  Campanale C, Massarelli C, Savino I, Locaputo V, Uricchio VF. A detailed review study on potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(4). doi:10.3390/ijerph17041212

12.  Giles-Corti B, Foster S, Lynch B. et al. What are the lessons from COVID-19 for creating healthy, sustainable, resilient future cities?. npj Urban Sustainability. 2023; 3(29) doi:10.1038/s42949-023-00107-y 

13.  Masson-Delmotte V, Zhai O, Pörtner H-O, Roberts D, Skea J, et al. Global Warming of 1.5°C. Annex I: Glossary. May 24, 2022. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/global-warming-of-15c/annex-i-glossary/34C9B03153C4E046925E057E94DFBCCD

14.  Malm A. The History of Human-Caused Global Heating. The Climate Crisis: Science, Impacts, Policy, Psychology, Justice, Social Movements. 2022.

15.  Ritchie H, Roser M. Sector by sector: where do global greenhouse gas emissions come from? Our world in data. 2023. https://ourworldindata.org/ghg-emissions-by-sector 

16.  Eckelman M J, Sherman J. Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health. PLoS One. June 9, 2016. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0157014

17.  Steinbach I, Stancliffe R, Duan B. Carbon modelling within dentistry. Towards a sustainable future. July 13, 2018. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/carbon-modelling-within-dentistry-towards-a-sustainable-future

18.  Sustainability: Dentists urged to reduce their carbon footprint. Br Dent J. 2018; 225(203-204). doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2018.661

19.  Byrne, D., Saget, S., Davidson, A. et al. Comparing the environmental impact of reusable and disposable dental examination kits: a life cycle assessment approach. Br Dent J. 2022; 233(317–325). doi:10.1038/s41415-022-4912-4

20.  Greenwashed out. Euromonitor.com. https://lp.euromonitor.com/white-paper/2024-global-consumer-trends/greenwashed-out

21.  Crest’s parent company says microbeads in toothpaste will be removed. Food Safety News. September 19, 2014. https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/09/crests-parent-company-says-microbeads-in-toothpaste-will-be-removed/

22.  Chengappa S, Kavery, Ashwini Rao, Aparna K S, Praveen S Jodalli, and Ramya Shenoy Kudpi. Microplastic content of over-the-counter toothpastes – a systematic review. April 13, 2023. https://f1000research.com/articles/12-390/v1