The other day, I walked into my dentist´s office and next to all of the diploma´s and credentials framed on the wall, there was a large plaque announcing that my dentist was certified as an eco-friendly practice. At first I thought this was nothing more than a bit of business green washing, trying to convince the progressive minded patient that there was an added incentive to take your money to this particular clinic.
During recent trips to the grocery store, the signs of “gluten-free” yogurt and potato chips that don´t rely on animal cruelty are similar green washing campaigns. Corporate publicity specialists obviously understand that a sizeable chunk of consumers in North America are willing to spend a little bit more money for products and services that are supposedly ethical, sustainable, and eco-friendly. Though no yogurt should have gluten in it and, since last time I checked, most potato chips don´t include animal products, making these explicit claims might very well help certain companies lure the conscientious consumer.
So what was it about my dentist that made his practice “eco-friendly” and any different from the rest? As I pondered this while my mouth was stretched wide open for the larger part of an hour, I noticed that the room had LED light bulbs and many of the electronics were certified as ENERGY STAR for their efficiency. I figured that my dentist got that eco-friendly certification by simply changing a few light bulbs in order to try and gain the competitive edge towards clients, like myself, whose brains automatically gravitated towards anything that promised to be eco-friendly.
The Standards of Eco-Friendly Dentistry
By the time my dentist filling in two small cavities, I stretched my jaw back into place and decided to ask him what standards he had to adhere to in order to be credentialed an eco-friendly dentistry practice. To my surprise, he handed me a pamphlet that he had printed containing detailed information on what eco-friendly practices truly entailed.
While there were considerations on energy efficiency within the buildings, there were several other aspects that I had never considered before.
The actual dentist office was 100% free of Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins (PBT) that often combine to make up that “hospital” smell. I noticed that the smell of the dentist´s office was much more like that of my own home and not like that of a hospital waiting room.
Eco-friendly certified dentistry practices also commit to 100% paperless billing and client communication. I remembered that I had never received any piece of mail correspondence from my dentist, leading to one less envelope making its way to the trash bin.
More substantially, my dentist had committed to never using metals in his dentistry practices. While only 1% of gold that is mined throughout the world is used by the dentistry profession, a recent learning trip to Central America had showed the dangerous social and environmental effects of gold mining around the world. The last thing I wanted was for my neglect in regular brushing and flossing to contribute to the poisoning of water sources for rural peasants in Guatemala.
Also, my dentist was committed to reducing the amount of mercury that is used within his dentistry practices. Mercury, especially if it makes its way into municipal water systems or water sheds, can wreak havoc on the environment and entire eco-systems. However, most dental amalgam uses large amounts of mercury (those silver-colored fillings that line most of your molars). My dentist had committed to using only porcelain and glass ionomer for filling (much less toxic to both humans and the environment), while also investing in an amalgam separator when removing older, mercury-tainted fillings from his patients.
Lastly, and perhaps most impressively, my dentist had enrolled in a certified carbon offset program to lessen his overall carbon footprint. He was reinvesting a part of his profit into a reforestation program in the boreal forests of northern Canada helping to do his part of fight against global climate change.
Our Shared Responsibility
As I left the dentist´s office that afternoon, I began to ponder the importance of every consumer choice we make. While my dentist might be nominally more expensive than other local dentists in my town, he was committed to doing his part to create a more sustainable, just, and ethical society; something that all of us need to be involved in.
Fighting for policy change on a governmental level is certainly an important task when it comes to tackling the myriad of crises that are upon us. However, structural or systemic change also depends on the sum of individual choices we all make. While some people may contend that simply choosing a dental clinic that promises to be eco-friendly does little in the grand scheme of things, these seemingly insignificant choices are also essential if we are going to make the shift towards a more sustainable civilization.
Almost every aspect of our globalized economy and our consumer-focused daily life are tied into the ruining of the natural world. Our society is built on the assumption that the natural world is nothing more than an endless mine to provide us with raw materials for our economy (gold for our tooth crowns) and a bottomless sink to receive the endless onslaught of waste from our consumption (mercury from our broken tooth fillings).
To begin to honestly confront the problems and crises and imminent calamities that are upon us, we need to begin by resolutely reproving and condemning these two basic assumptions and making responsible lifestyle choices based on respect for the natural limitations of the world around us. These lifestyle choices aren´t just related to what type of automobile we purchase or what type of light bulbs we use in our home, but rather should be an overarching ethic related to every aspect of our lives.
Dental care might not seem like it has a lot of direct correlation with ecology and sustainability. However, as my dentist recently showed me, there are hidden costs to every dollar we spend. From the chemical filled, Chilean apples we purchase during the dead of winter to the mercury-laced filling that one day might make it into our local watershed, we need to urgently learn to take responsibility for every consumer decision we take.