It’s 8am and the lovely dental assistants are hard at work preparing the dental surgeries for a busy day.

One of these tasks is to put barrier sleeves on every bit of equipment that we may or may not be using during the day. This is all in the name of compliance.

But really, are we doing enough to keep a balance between our compliance obligations and the need to save this planet, one barrier sleeve or one plastic dental apron at a time?

We are a throwaway society, a plastic society. In reflection of this, medical/dental waste has gotten out of hand.

What is your practice/organisation doing to reduce or eliminate plastic pollution? Single-use plastic items are convenient and often necessary for patient care. But it is a common misperception that proper infection control demands wasteful and polluting practices.

The current government in its letter of expectation to District Health Boards has specifically asked for the sector to work on a response to climate change; and I think that is telling of how important it is to protect our planet.

It is definitely harder to find another alternative planet to live on than finding tangible solutions that would work towards reducing environment waste in our dental practices.

So where should you start?

Go look in your operatory rubbish bins. What is in there? Are there any single-use plastic items that could be replaced with a reusable version?

We can also purchase autoclavable items instead of single-use disposables items and when we do, let’s find ways to use less plastics in the autoclaving process.  Our focus should always be to reduce the number of single-use items while still maintaining high standards of asepsis and patient care.

Here are some tips I would suggest in the first instance. These are:

  • Use metal or autoclavable plastic instead of single-use disposables (example: air/water or suction tips)
  • Wiping down with bio-degradable disinfectants rather than putting barrier sleeves.
  • Use biodegradable bags as barriers instead of plastic. These bags are made from natural materials such as vegetable starches and break down in the environment easier than plastics. (http://biobagusa.com)
  • Limit the use of multiple gloving during patient care while adhering to infection control standards.
  • Autoclave cassettes in reusable cloth or reusable fabric bags rather than plastic backed paper. Reusable cloth methods have been used in hospital operating rooms for decades. It is cost-effective, protects practitioners and patients, while keeping millions of pounds of trash out of our overburdened landfills.
  • Use reusable/autoclavable stainless steel impression trays rather than single use plastic trays.
  • Move from conventional x-rays to digital films. This also keeps harmful chemicals out of our water supplies
  • Purchase items in bulk to reduce packaging material and cost. Tell your dental supplier to reduce its packaging and to combine your orders to reduce shipping waste.
  • Consider bamboo toothbrushes and biodegradable floss picks as gifts to patients as opposed to plastics.
  • Have a plastic recycling container in your practice.
  • Educate your patients about the environment but I think our patients are sometimes more aware of the term “sustainability” than we are.
  • Use Dr Google to find out where your dental material/products come from.
  • Look for products that have been sourced ethically and from countries/companies that comply with child labour laws. It may mean you pay a few dollars more but it’s worth it in the long term.

Lastly, carry out an environment audit of your practice at regular intervals. You may or may not change anything as a result but it certainly will make you and your colleagues collectively think about how to save the one planet that we want to leave for our future patients(and generations).

Arish Naresh* is the Director of Allied Health and Technical for Hauora Tairawhiti (Tairawhiti District Health Board), a dental therapist and the chair of the New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association. All views expressed are his own.

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