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What’s the environmental impact of dentistry? 5 ways dental care impacts the planet
By: Stephanie Osmanski Read Time: 6 Min Read Date: October 04, 2020
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When you brush your teeth or lean back in a chair in the dentist’s office, chances are you’re not wondering about the environmental impact of such an action. Let’s be honest – taking care of our teeth is both important to our health and ingrained in us! Ever since you were a little kid, you were taught that brushing your teeth was healthy. For many of us, it’s one of our favorite things to do when we’re little – I know for a fact that in my baby/toddler book, one page says, “Enjoys brushing her teeth each day.” (Well, when you’re two, what else is there to do?) But believe it or not, the way we take care of our teeth now isn’t sustainable in the least. In fact, it’s ruining the environment.

 

In a study by Margot Hiltz entitled “The environmental impact of dentistry,” Hiltz shares that the current dental care practices that are standard have consequential impacts on the environment. Hiltz writes, “As dental practitioners, we must recognize that some of the materials and procedures we use to provide dental health services may present challenges to the environment. Realizing this, we can begin to take measures to minimize the production of these wastes and their potential environmental effects.” Claps for you, Hiltz!

 

According to Hiltz, dentist offices contribute general office waste, biomedical waste, dental amalgam, lead, and silver waste. Not to mention, dentist offices just love giving out single-use plastic goodie bags full of plastic toothbrushes, plastic floss, plastic toothpicks, and plastic toothpaste tubes. We get it – it’s free! 

 

Fortunately, like most other industries, the dental industry is pivoting. And we’re at the heart of that pivot, folks. After all, as consumers, we’re demanding it! Surveys show that 45 percent of the U.S. population prefers to buy from companies that have environmentally friendly practices in place and 80 percent of people prefer to work for an employer that implements sustainable practices. No more waiting on the world to change – it’s changing!

 

But while sustainability in the field of dentistry is important, there is also a lot we can change at home. Actually, single-use dental care at home is probably easier to change because we’re in control of how we take care of our teeth. There are a few things you can do at home to greenify your dental care routine – switch to biodegradable and non-toxic tooth tablets, opt for a bamboo toothbrush in lieu of plastic ones, buy biodegradable and non-toxic floss, and cut back on plastic packaging or products whenever possible. But before we make the changes, here at Huppy, we think it’s really important to realize just how harmful it is to be a part of a dental care system that relies so heavily on single-use plastics – after all, single use plastics are negatively impacting our environment.

 

Cavity filling waste contaminates waterways

This one is more for your dentist than it is for you at home. Unless, of course, you’re operating a back-alley dentist’s office and are guilty of unsafely disposing dental amalgam waste with mercury. But we highly doubt it.

 

Anyway, mercury contamination is a really big deal. It happens most often in standard dentistry because mercury is used to bind the metals of dental amalgams – AKA tooth fillings for cavities – together. A tooth filling is made of various metals and mercury has binding properties that keeps the filling together. But when fillings are finished in the dentist’s office, they normally result in a lot of waste. If mercury is included in that waste, it can enter our environment if not properly disposed. In our environment, mercury will contaminate the waterways, threaten natural ecosystems, and thanks to the food chain, could harm humans in the long run.

 

A crucial part in dentists working to actively reduce mercury contamination is investing in an amalgam separator. Next time you go to the dentist, be sure to ask: Do you use an amalgam separator? This device filters waste particles from the wastewater system, so that dangerous substances like mercury don’t end up in our environment after a dentist does a filling.

 

 

Dental floss piles high in landfills

Sure, we understand the importance of flossing, but it is so difficult to get behind conventional flossing when you know the statistics of just how much dental floss ends up in the landfill.

 

Not sure? Some have estimated that since the average person should be flossing, as per the American Dental Association’s recommendation, at least once per day, that means the average person would use about 7.3 containers per year. If all of America flossed every day for one year, that would roughly equate to 2,184,00,000 dispensers per year.

 

That’s just the dispensers. Those numbers account for enough floss to circle the Earth 1,246 times. 

 

Couple that with the fact that most floss is made from a plastic derivative called nylon and it’s enough to want to never floss again. (Although, to be fair, the act of flossing is enough to never want to floss again, too!) Waxed nylon is not recyclable, and it takes hundreds, if not thousands of years, to fully break down. So, all in all, conventional floss is a real pain in the Earth’s butt.

 

Freaked out by floss yet? Don’t be. That’s just the conventional stuff, and luckily, there are more sustainable options out there. Some companies make eco-friendly floss made from coconut or silk, both of which are biodegradable and compostable. Most of these brands are that same brands that provide eco-friendly packaging – either in the way of paper or glass.

 

Plastic toothbrushes take hundreds of years to decompose 

A single plastic toothbrush can take more than 400+ years to decompose. Imagine how many toothbrushes you’ve had your entire life. Even if you were to estimate you’ve had 10 toothbrushes throughout your life – which is probably not even scratching the surface of how many you’ve used in your lifetime so far – all of your plastic toothbrushes would take a total of 4,000 years to biodegrade.

 

Or, you could simply switch to a sustainable bamboo toothbrush. In at-home compost containers, bamboo toothbrushes could decompose anywhere from four to six months; in the backyard garden, it could take anywhere from five to 10 years to decompose.

 

Still, much quicker than the yucky plastic stuff!

 

Mouthwash ingredients kill wildlife

I can just imagine your face right now: You’re like what WTH are you talking about? How the heck could mouthwash kill wildlife? Well, listen up…! 

 

Most conventional mouthwash contains harsh ingredients and additives. We’re talking fake dyes, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, triclosan, parabens, petrochemicals, and something called antiparasitic thymol. Thymol is highly toxic to aquatic microorganisms. As mouthwash gets sloshed back out your mouth and goes down the drain, it undoubtedly makes its way into our waterways. There, it can harm aquatic microorganisms. Trace amounts of parabens and triclosan can also harm (or in high doses, even kill!) microorganisms.

 

Is the fresh breath worth it? Nah. Instead, opt for mouthwash free of triclosan, parabens, and antiparasitic thymol. Some sustainable, non-toxic mouthwash also comes in tablet form and in glass packaging.

 

Plastic packaging makes unnecessary waste

Speaking of packaging, the dental industry – both the professional one and the one that we submit to at home after buying teeth-friendly products at CVS – is guilty of excessive use of single-use plastic packaging.

 

According to Nature.com, the plastic associated with dentists’ tools alone makes for an unfathomable amount of waste. “Assuming hypothetical figures of 10,000 dentists administering five local anesthetics a day over a working year of 200 days, this amounts to 1,000,000 plastic syringes added to the plastic waste for disposal.”

 

Now, remember – that’s just syringes and that probably doesn’t account for the single-use medical plastic wrap the syringe was contained in, either. That number of syringes doesn’t take into account the plastic toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, floss, dental picks, and baggies – nor the packaging they come in – that that dentists give away during cleanings.

 

Plastic takes hundreds, if not thousands of years, to break down. So, with so much plastic packaging associated with this industry – from the packaging of floss, toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes, and even mouthwash containers – plastic is a real environmental issue in dentistry.

 

Dental toothpicks also never break down

They were kind of heralded as a new, exciting alternative to floss for people who hated flossing. But, dental toothpicks really also kind of suck. 

 

 

Traditionally made entirely from plastic, flosser picks sometimes make more waste than actual floss itself because each flosser is bigger and therefore, utilizes more plastic.

 

Maybe you heard this already but plastic takes 400+ years to break down. Have we drilled that into your head yet? So, ditch the dental toothpicks made of plastic and either go for sustainable floss, traditional wood picks, or sustainable picks – like the ones made entirely out of biodegradable cornstarch – instead.

 

Your health – and the planet – will thank you!

 

The takeaway

We don’t just know what we’re doing when it comes to making safe, plastic-free, and environmentally friendly tooth tabs; we also know what we’re doing when it comes to including sustainable packaging. There would be no sense in creating a plastic-free toothpaste alternative and then wrapping it in bubble wrap, so we went above and beyond to make sure that anyone – even someone without their own at-home compost – could get rid of our packaging in an easy and sustainable way that wouldn’t hurt the planet.

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