Certified Cavity Quality Mark
Cavity Dental Staff Blog

Navigating the Path to Carbon Neutrality in Dentistry

1st Mar 2024
Carbon Neutrality in Dentistry

Climate change, an omnipresent topic in today’s world; rising temperatures, droughts, and extreme weather events signal a global crisis that has been at the forefront of public and governmental attention since the introduction of the Climate Change Act in 2008. The act aimed to slash the net UK carbon emissions by 80% come 2050, compared to 1990 levels. However, as we find ourselves in 2024, recent reports indicate that we might breach the crucial 1.5 Celsius degree temperature increase threshold by 2027, catapulting the world into uncharted territory.

The urgency to curb human-induced effects on climate change has never been more apparent. In this context, the healthcare sector, particularly the NHS, takes centre stage as a significant contributor to carbon emissions. The NHS, with a carbon footprint of approximately 22.8 million tonnes CO2e, constitutes 5.4% of the UK's total emissions. While this might seem marginally smaller than other major sectors like aviation (7%), it remains a considerable concern. The NHS, responding to the Climate Change Act, initiated the NHS Carbon Reduction Strategy in 2009, a pioneering move within healthcare systems.

In a more recent stride towards sustainability, the NHS implemented Net Zero legislation on July 1, 2022. Setting ambitious targets for both directly and indirectly produced emissions. However, in the realm of dentistry, an integral part of the NHS, a deeper exploration into carbon emissions reveals its unique challenges and the imperative for sustainable practices.

Carbon Emissions in NHS Dentistry

Surprisingly, NHS dental services contribute to 3% (675 kilotonnes) of the overall NHS carbon emissions. This emphasizes the significance of discussing sustainability within the field. To contextualize, offsetting the current annual carbon emission in NHS dentistry would necessitate planting a staggering 28,048,800 trees (equivalent to 16,835 hectares of land). The impact is undeniable, and the responsibility for sustainable dental practices cannot be overlooked.

Sources of Carbon Emissions in Dentistry

Contrary to expectations, reports show that two-thirds of carbon emissions in dentistry stem from travel undertaken by both staff and patients to dental practices. This is followed by procurement at 19%, energy usage at 7.7%, and gas consumption at 7.6%. Notably, dental waste, often assumed to be the primary contributor, holds a smaller share in the emissions pie.

The Environmental Impact of Dental Procedures

Dental procedures, while essential for oral health, contribute significantly to carbon emissions. The carbon footprint varies across procedures, ranging from 5.50 kgCO2e for an examination to 119 kgCO2e for procedures involving nitrous oxide. Despite preventive treatments like examinations, scale and polishes, radiographs, and fissure sealant varnishes having a seemingly small carbon footprint per procedure, their frequency places them at the top of the emission range.

The Moral Imperative and Professional Standards

The General Dental Council emphasizes integrity and a holistic approach in its standards. Given that climate change-related extreme temperatures contribute to the death of five million people annually, sustainability in dentistry can be seen as a moral duty for clinicians. It aligns with their responsibility to address threats that jeopardize the health of patients.

Benefits of Reducing Carbon Emissions in Dentistry

The advantages of adopting sustainable practices in dentistry extend beyond environmental gains. A reduced carbon footprint contributes to a cleaner environment, safeguarding against pollution and emerging diseases. Financial stability and cost savings also emerge as benefits, enhancing the overall well-being of dental practices and communities.

Strategies for Reducing Carbon Emissions in Dentistry

  1. Efficient Travel: Reduce private vehicle emissions by encouraging staff to cycle or walk. Active travel not only reduces carbon footprint but also promotes physical fitness.
  2. Optimized Scheduling: Streamlining appointments, combining family members' visits, and reducing unnecessary recall appointments can minimize patient travel, a major contributor to carbon emissions.
  3. Emphasis on Preventive Dentistry: Shifting the focus from curative to preventive dentistry reduces the carbon footprint associated with more intensive procedures. Engaging in patient education through various channels promotes oral health.
  4. Utilization of Technology: Embracing teledentistry minimizes unnecessary patient travel, providing a platform for virtual consultations and reducing emissions. Digital scanners, 3D models, and online communication further reduce the need for physical visits.
  5. Energy Efficiency Measures: From choosing green energy suppliers to adopting energy-efficient appliances, dental practices can significantly reduce their carbon footprint. Simple measures like turning off lights, insulating spaces, and using smart meters contribute to energy conservation.
  6. Sustainable Procurement: Opting for eco-friendly, biodegradable, and renewable products, along with bulk ordering to reduce packaging waste, aligns with sustainable procurement practices.

The journey towards a sustainable dentistry practice requires commitment, adaptation, and a collective effort from the dental community. As the NHS spearheads broader sustainability goals, dentistry must carve its path towards a carbon-neutral future. By implementing these strategies and fostering a culture of environmental responsibility, dental practices can play a pivotal role in mitigating climate change's impact on the planet. The call for a greener, more sustainable dentistry resonates not only with the immediate benefits for practices but also with a broader commitment to the well-being of our global community.