If you’re discarding dental scrap, you’re throwing money in the bin and harming the environment. By Frank Leggett
Most dental practices across Australia have procedures in place that keep harmful materials out of the environment. One very successful example is the widespread adoption of amalgam separators that has drastically reduced the amount of mercury being released into wastewater.
Unfortunately, many practices are discarding dental scrap, harming both their bottom line and the environment. It’s now very easy to recycle this material and it offers real financial benefits.
“The Australian Dental Association encourages the recycling of dental scrap,” says Associate Professor Neil Hewson, chair of the ADA’s Dental Informatics & Digital Health Committee.
“There are environmental benefits as it prevents metals such as silver and mercury entering the environment where they can seep into the soil, hurt natural ecosystems, and pollute fresh water sources. Also, it can generate income for dental practices—the practices sell the material to a recycling company. Gold crowns, for example, can be recycled and re-used for other purposes.”
Dental scrap is recycled through a refinery process to extract the precious metals in the material—generally gold, silver, platinum and palladium. These metals can be extracted from crowns, bridges, PFMs and many other dental materials.
Dr Helen Voronina owns and runs Dr Helen’s Dental & Implant Studio in East Prahran in Victoria. As the practice enthusiastically embraces ethical and sustainable methods, Dr Voronina has been recycling their scrap for the past 13 years.
“In keeping with our practice ethos, we recycle for environmental reasons rather than as a money maker,” she says. “All the metals that are reclaimed and reused means there is less metal being mined from the land. It should also be remembered that things like crowns and bridges are effectively owned by the patient. Once they’re removed, the vast majority of people want nothing to do with them. It just makes sense to recycle rather than throw it out.”
While there is less gold used in dentistry these days, it’s still around, especially in old crowns.
“I love gold crowns because they perform so spectacularly well,” says Dr Voronina. “The problem is that they are extremely expensive and patients are very price-driven. These days, I tend to use zirconia or porcelain crowns instead of PFM or full metal. However, metal crowns were very common and they contain gold, palladium, platinum and silver, all of which can be recycled.”
In 2016, Garfield Refining, a US company based in Philadelphia, entered the Australian market to recycle dental scrap. The 128-year-old business recycles metals from jewellers, pawnbrokers, technical companies and many other industries. Dental recycling, however, is the largest part of their business. It will refine any material that contains precious metals. The scrap is simply placed in a plastic jar that is collected on a regular basis. It is then shipped to a warehouse facility in Canberra and from there to the smelter in Philadelphia.
“Once the scrap is melted down, it gets assayed,” says Abby Stevens, director of Joint Ventures at Garfield Refining. “A machine detects the types and amounts of precious metals in the sample and produces a report that shows the value of those metals. From the time the scrap arrives at our refinery, we have the metal processed and a payment made to the dentist’s account within 24 hours. We take five per cent as a refining fee.”
Depending on the amount of scrap recycled, most payments are between $100 and $600. While the real benefit is in keeping heavy metals out of the ecosystem, dental businesses have found a number of inventive ways to spend their windfall. Some donate it to charity, some put it towards staff training or Christmas parties.
When preparing dental scrap for recycling, some dentists autoclave the material before it leaves their office, even though this is not necessary. It simply needs to be dry when placed in the container. There is no need to remove organic material or to separate metal from the tooth. Once the scrap is received at the refinery, it goes straight into a furnace and everything non-precious is burnt off.
Most dentures do not contain precious metals but some do. The big mistake some dentists make is to throw out items they believe to be worthless. A good rule of thumb is, if in doubt, don’t throw it out. If it’s worthless, it will simply be burnt off in the refinery.
The only material that should not be sent to a refinery is mercury found in amalgam fillings. Amalgam separators have successfully removed mercury from our waterways but the material needs to be disposed of correctly.
The monetary value of dental scrap should not be underestimated. Gold reached a record high price in the middle of 2020 and other precious metals are also fetching good money.
“Palladium has a volatile pricing structure but for much of 2020 it was trading higher than gold,” says Stevens. “It’s also being used more frequently in dental work and can be successfully extracted at our refinery.
“A lot of dentists think that because the use of gold has been trending down in dentistry, it’s not worthwhile recycling their scrap. The truth is, gold is still used in many unexpected ways that are not visually obvious. To get maximum return on scrap, dentists need to save all yellow and white metals, and send it to the refinery—that is where they are going to earn their payout.”