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What is sustainable dentistry?

We talk a lot on our website about providing "sustainable healthcare", and that we're "climate conscious" but what exactly does that mean?

In short it means that we care about the impact we have on our planet and we're committed to doing everything in our power to do what we do in a way that does as little harm, or where we can, as much benefit, as possible.

There's a lot of waffle about sustainability, talk of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) and such but frankly, we find it all a bit boring and bureaucratic. It paves the way for ambiguity and greenwashing which sadly, has caught me out before (with my pension for one, but more about that later).

We like to keep things as simple as possible, making the big and small changes, that make a real difference both for our patients and the planet.

So, what does a sustainable dental practice do that a normal practice doesn't?

To start with, we measure. We have completed a full audit of our carbon footprint through ZeroBees who've helped us identify what changes we can make to make the biggest impact. We're committed to making every change that we can to achieve our goal of becoming a net zero healthcare provider, primarily through reducing our carbon footprint, but then investing in climate positive solutions to offset any carbon that we find to be unavoidable.

We've made loads of changes since starting on our journey, from the really basic easy wins that are easy to quantify of introducing recycling bins to the practice and switching to 100% renewable electricity, to creating our own wild garden in the little space next to the front of our practice.

By clearing out the old concrete laden dirt, replacing it with some fresh soil and compost and scattering some wild flower seeds, we've created a haven for all manner of creatures and critters. We've also got a couple of compost bins to reduce the general waste and utilise all the goodness in those banana peels and apple cores after lunchtime. 25% of all earth's life is in the soil, and we've just nurtured a little extra habitat for it to thrive.

Can you really be sustainable in healthcare?

It's true that by the very nature of what we do, in order to do it safely, we often have to use single use pieces of equipment and the clinical waste we generate has to be destroyed by incineration, which I always think sounds so dramatic. As you'll see by the chart below, by far the biggest impact is from our small pension pot. The money we are investing is simply being invested in the wrong place. I was staggered when I discovered this, especially as I'd enquired about the unnamed companies green credentials before I'd invested and been given plenty of glossy brochures about how they care about the planet and "invest responsibly". Sorting this is priority number 1 for us right now and it will have a huge impact on our carbon footprint when it's done.

What you'll also notice, is that the category labelled "Dentistry" is a significant contributor to what we do (about 40% of everything that isn't finance related), but it's by no means everything. We've invested in lots of reusable equipment instead of the cheap single use versions where it's safe to do so, and our intra-oral scanner means that we rarely have to take old fashioned impressions any more which use significant resources every time they're used.

Is being a net zero dental practice really that great?

The reality is, a business calling themselves net zero can be a bit misleading. All net zero really means is that a company "offsets" any carbon they create buy buying carbon credits. It's not hard to do, and in the grand scheme of things, it's not that expensive either. Net zero can mean that no attempt has been made to reduce the size of the footprint, but they've simply tried to fill the footprint back in after they've left it, which frankly, we don't think is enough. That's why we're "climate conscious" and not net zero. Net zero is one goal for sure, but how we reach that goal is even more important to us.

A diagram illustrating the recycling funnel
Reduce Reuse Recycle

When it comes to dealing with the "Dentistry" section of the emissions chart above, we really focus on the simplicity of the Reduce>Reuse>Recycle model. The idea is that the best thing we can all do to minimise our carbon footprint, is to reduce what we're using, whether that's electricity, gas, or any equipment or materials. Where we can't reduce, we buy reusable. Where reusable isn't an option, we recycle everything we can.

What's left, we have to dispose of but we have chosen Initial as our waste collector of choice because they're banging the same drum as us when it comes to finding ways to become more sustainable, regardless of the apparent limitations of the industries we work in.

It still feels like we're quite early on in our journey but it's a goal we're striving towards as a team and we're enjoying and embracing the challenges that we're encountering along the way.

We're very proud to talk openly about our journey to sustainability in healthcare and we hope that we have inspired a few of our patients to take the small easy steps to reduce their carbon footprint, and in time, we hope to inspire other dental practices to do the same.

Dr Karl Dental implants mentor and lecturer

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