Many people are keen on recycling oral care products. Helping patients and the broader community do just that is yet another way dentists can help minimise their environmental footprint. By Zoe Meunier
While more and more dental practices are going green—from safely recycling amalgams and other professional dental materials to energy efficient lighting, water reduction and filtration and paperless offices, there’s always more that can be done.
In Australia, over 30 million toothbrushes are used and disposed of by Australians each year, leading to approximately 1000 tonnes of landfill annually. Made from a combination of plastic and rubber for the hand piece, nylon bristles and using plastic and cardboard packaging, these non-biodegradable items, when placed in the bin, remain in landfill indefinitely.
But an initiative by Colgate and TerraCycle now offers a recycling program that’s simple for dentists and patients to get involved with.
“Colgate sponsors the recycling program, which means it’s free for consumers,” explains Gemma Kaczerepa from TerraCycle (terracycle.com.au), a recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste: anything from coffee pods to beauty products, baby food pouches and more. “Anyone can sign up to the program—whether they’re an individual, school, office or dental surgery—and start collecting oral care waste in their location.”
Oral care waste includes toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, outer packaging and dental floss containers of any brand, but not dental floss itself or electric toothbrushes and toothbrush heads, which are classified as e-waste.
“Once they have a full box or bag they just need to log into their account to download a prepaid shipping label, attach it to the box or bag and send it off to us through Australia Post,” says Kaczerepa, adding that up to 20kg of recycling waste can be sent at any time.
Upon receiving a box or bag, TerraCycle works out how much it contains based on its weight and the collectors then receive two cents for every unit they send back, which can be donated to their chosen school or charity. “So it’s a really good way not only of recycling oral care waste but also of being able to raise money either for the school itself or a chosen charity,” says Kaczerepa.
“We’re encouraging patients to bring in their oral care waste and we then donate to our chosen charity, Oz Harvest.
For us, it’s a really important issue to try to keep these items out of landfill.”—Rebecca Moss, Castle Cove Family Dental, NSW
For dentists, the program is a natural fit, and a great way to not only help the environment, but foster goodwill and engagement in the community and potentially win new patients.
“We have a number of dentists who set up collection bins in the front of their dental surgery, so any of their customers can come in and drop off their oral care waste,” says Kaczerepa. “Some of them have even given a new toothbrush for every recycled one people bring back, which is a really good way to incentivise their patients.”
One Sydney dental practice using the program is Castle Cove Family Dental, headed by Dr Mary Moss.
“We have a number of part-time dentists here who are all mums and we do regular community events as a give-back to our patients and the local community,” says Rebecca Moss, who handles administration at the practice. “This year, we’ve really focused on recycling and the environment and organised a film screening for our patients of the movie Bag It, about plastic in the environment. As an extension of this, we’re also now on board with TerraCycle’s oral care recycling program. We’re encouraging patients to bring in their oral care waste and we then donate to our chosen charity, Oz Harvest. For us, it’s a really important issue to try to keep these items out of landfill.”
As well as having well-marked bins in their reception area, Moss says they spread the word via the practice’s Facebook page and other social media.
“There are quite a number of local Facebook pages, so we try to share information that way,” she says. “And every patient that walks in, we have the conversation with them.”
The Castle Cove practice has gone one step further by getting the local schools involved as well. “There’s three schools in the surrounding area and we have a great relationship with them, so I sent them all a brochure asking them to be a part of it,” explains Moss. “They put it in their newsletter and they have little collection bins at the school. When they’re full, they’ll ring me and I’ll go and pick them up.”
“While we might think a single toothbrush doesn’t make a big impact on the environment, as with everything to do with the environment, every bit counts, so when you add up all the units we’ve collected it does make a very significant impact.”—Gemma Kaczerepa, TerraCycle
Kaczerepa says dental practices can also sign up to become public drop-off points. “That means they go on an interactive map on our website and any member of the community can go on that map, find their nearest drop-off point, then go there to drop off their oral care waste. So that’s also a good way for dentists to get new customers walking through their door.”
When collecting oral care waste—particularly toothpaste tubes—Kaczerepa explains that they don’t need any special treatment before recycling, as they get cleaned at the facility in a water-efficient manner. “People just need to make sure most of the product has been removed, so we can’t accept half full or full bottles of toothpaste,” she adds.
Since the program launched in Australia three years ago, Kaczerepa says TerraCycle has recycled a massive 165,000 units of oral care waste.
“While we might think a single toothbrush doesn’t make a big impact on the environment, as with everything to do with the environment, every bit counts, so when you add up all the units we’ve collected it does make a very significant impact.”
Kaczerepa explains that the recycled products are then able to be repurposed into anything for which recycled plastic can be used.
“The products are melted down and turned into a liquid which is then put through a pelletiser and it’s turned into little plastic pellets. Those pellets can then be used to create plastic manufacturing materials like lumbers or park benches,” she says. “We even did a whole playground over in the United States made of oral care waste.”
While TerraCycle is essentially the only oral waste recycling program of its kind, Kaczerepa says the program is running worldwide. “Colgate is one of our biggest partners all over the world where we operate, so it’s something we’re running almost globally.”
That’s something to smile about.