Should we ban single-use plastics in dentistry?

plasticsWith an environmental crisis on the horizon, is it time our regulators changed too, Neel Kothari asks.

The influential economist, John Maynard Keynes, was asked by a journalist why he had changed his mind over the years, to which he reportedly replied: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do, sir?’

When the introduction of the CQC and HTM01-05 occurred almost 10 years ago, the world hadn’t yet woken up to the environmental crisis posed by plastic pollution.

The dental profession faced an uphill struggle with the guidance, which had the same appeal as reading software terms and conditions.

Whilst I could whinge on about the regulatory burden that was imposed upon us with much the same passion as the 48% who voted remain, let me focus on the impact of some of the changes that it brought about.

Suddenly dentistry had a new measure of quality, one that was linked not to patient outcomes, but rather to how well a practice complied with a strict set of rules that many felt lacked sound evidence.

These included the abandonment of many items that were disinfected or sterilised between patient use and their subsequent replacement with single-use plastic items.

‘Drop in the ocean’

For those feeling good about recycling the odd bit at home, this is simply a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared with the waste we generate during our working lives (pun intended).

Although clinical waste is incinerated, the environmental impact of single-use plastics extends far beyond its disposal, with all parts of the lifecycle, including production and distribution, carrying an environmental burden.

The question is, do the theoretical benefits of single-use plastics (often non-sterile at the point of use) outweigh the very real environmental crisis that we as an industry are contributing to?

Many forward-thinking practices are now asking what they can do to cut down their waste, whether it’s through a genuine passion for protecting the environment or simply as a way to communicate to their patients that they are environmentally conscious.

Whilst I don’t think banning single-use plastics is anywhere near a reality with today’s regulatory burdens, the momentum is certainly growing and dentistry in the UK really ought to be making itself heard about this issue and asking our regulators to show forward thinking and help the profession take the lead on this increasingly important issue.

This is certainly not a dig at the CQC, but a realisation that 10 years ago we simply didn’t know or didn’t care about how serious this issue would become.

It was all too easy for those deciding policy to suggest ‘improvements’ without considering the environmental costs incurred.

The facts have certainly changed and now it’s time for us to do the same.


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Comments (8)

Can I just highlight something from my own past which I feel very guilty about…….. for nine years I ran a dental lab that solely made custom made mouth guards. Dentists went to schools/clubs for imps. Over 9 years, we made just over 40,000!!!! But that’s 40,000 plastic ‘disposable’ (now a horribly misleading word) that are in landfill. Did you know that a plastic tray can take up to 450 years to biodegrade!!

So the vote from me Neel is THANK YOU for the article and YES- remove single use plastics…. perhaps look at digital impression workflows (you may think I am biased as I am involved with digital scanners, but that does not mean I am any less passionate about trying to reduce our carbon footprint).
So why not scan and therefore remove and reduce…..
Plastic trays
Parafin wax
Silicone/polyethers
Plastic bags
Paper lab tickets
Boxes/bags for delivery
Postage materials.

Big issue is recycling and collection correct labelling of plastics so we know which can be reinstated or not ,coloured bins for collective waste ,we have to work harder in separating our waste great point Neel

Everyday we through our bibs ,suction tips and all the pouches the instruments have been in no longer than a couple of hours it’s a disgrace we need to stop.

Not all clinical waste is incinerated. Some is treated and sent to landfill. So it really does make a difference what we do.
We can use reusable 3 in 1, aspirator tips etc, so long as we show how we clean them and use a vacuum autoclave.

I’m so glad to see someone else feels the same as I do. I am not disillusioned enough to believe that we can do away with all single use plastic in dentistry but I feel it is our responsibility to do as much as possible to reduce its use. Not just for our sake but also for our children’s sake. Is there any way of petitioning the relevant bodies to see if we can make some headway with this?

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