We started of the semester identifying the issues about plastic pollution and where it hits the hardest. In the Great Pacific Garbage patch, there is more than 80,000 tons of plastic, and there are four other main gyres or garbage in the world’s oceans. This hits wildlife ecosystems, our environment, as well as our health through bioaccumulation. By doing a systems thinking exercise, we thought about potential barriers including financial barriers and barriers relating to pessimism of the population. We discussed several steps that can be taken by individuals including reducing single-use plastic use and becoming more involved in reducing pollution through activism and local policy change. Individuals can have tremendous effects when it comes to the fight against plastic pollution. When thinking about what I would personally want to do in the future to lessen my plastic pollution, I immediately thought of the single-use plastics that are used in medicine, and more specifically dentistry.

Sustainable Dentistry

The healthcare system can be pointed out for many negative environmental impacts including the pollution of water and being one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste.  With my interest in pursuing a career in the field of dentistry, I was first introduced to the amount of waste produced when I shadowed a dentist in Hawaii who showed me how his office has made changes to be a more sustainable practice. However, for most practitioners, making a more sustainable practice may not seem as appealing because of the time it may take to change their practices, the money it may cost, or the inconvenience of changing their strict – but important – sanitation regulations. 

Some of the culprits of waste in dental offices include regular office waste as well as biomedical waste. Additionally, mercury is released into the environment because of dental amalgum and silver and lead from dental radiographs. The worst culprit concerning plastic are obviously the single-use plastics used for sanitary purposes to cover chairs and equipment. This could be avoided by using autoclavable equipment or use compostable or biodegradable bags to keep things sanitary.

Making dentistry sustainable is not only good for the environment, it is good for the dental practice as well with positive marketing strategies. This is one way that systems thinking comes into play; not only is it good for the environment to make things in an office sustainable and reduce waste, it’s also financially favorable as well bringing in more patients to a practice.

To make sustainable options even more appealing to dentists, it would be most effective to start these teachings in dental medicine institutions.  Not only would it be more effective for future dentists to learn to implement these practices while learning dentistry, it would also make it more of a norm for dentists in general while also making the facilities of the school itself more sustainable as well. Switching to digital film is something most dentists are doing now which is also helpful. To further reduce plastic waste, the toothbrushes handed out to patients can be changed from plastic to bamboo and toothpaste without the plastic tubes.

With the growing awareness of the problem of our unsustainable practices, it might be beneficial for dental students to learn more about creating sustainable practices for when they have the power to do so. Next year when I attend dental school, I hope to join their sustainability club and start the initiative to reduce plastic waste in the dental school. This would not only be beneficial for the environment, but also for the students to go on to have sustainable dental practices. The school would benefit from this change as well by being able to advertise their sustainable choices and become a model for other dental and medical schools moving forward.