Plastics and dentistry – what can be done?

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  Posted by: Dental Design      15th May 2024

Dentistry has become a field dominated by plastics. They are everywhere you turn and are used in hygiene appointments, clinical surgeries, and so much more.

As part of a dental practice’s environmental and disposal responsibilities, plastics are a concern. Taking a wider look at plastic use and disposal in general, the European Environment Agency estimates that only 9% of the plastics ever produced have been recycled, 12% have been incinerated, and the rest are either in use, in landfill, or in the environment.[1]

Dental professionals should review their daily workflows and find ways to decrease their plastic consumption and potentially damaging disposal methods. The contribution to pollution has been judged by some to be in contention with the philosophy of ‘first, do no harm’.[2]

Plastic in the practice

It’s important to first assess where plastic appears in the dental workflow. Most often it is through single-use items. In a routine adult primary care dental procedure in the UK, an average of 21 single-use plastic items are employed.[3] Gloves, masks, wipes, autoclave/sterilisation sleeves, and tray liners are amongst these, and more than one of these items is generally needed for each average procedure.3

These add up fast. Conservative estimates say 720 million dental single-use plastic items end up as waste in the UK every year.[4]

Creating environmentally friendly solutions may mean, where possible, substituting single-use plastics for alternatives that are made of sustainable materials. After all, if you cannot continue dentistry without an item – for example, PPE – the only approach is to change the type of product. Some dental-specific, sustainable solutions are already available to clinicians and patients alike, but understanding the disposal process attached to each product that is traditionally made from plastic will allow you to identify where changes can have the greatest impact.

Disposal management

The Health Technical Memorandum 07-01 (HTM 07-01) is an excellent source of advice and information on improving your principles of sustainable waste management. Some of the examples of good practice that it seeks from healthcare teams include: sourcing products derived from recycled materials, prioritising the use of reusable products over single-use products, and, where safe to do so, investing in alternatives to single-use items.[5]

It also includes instructions on where items can or cannot be directed for disposal. Within the colour coding guide, it states that some domestic waste, recyclable waste, and confidential waste can all be sent to recycling.5 However, other products of the dental workflow, including photo-chemicals from X-rays and some offensive waste, are also listed as recyclable too.5 Dental professionals should consult their waste management service to ensure they can safely manage refuse in this way.

So, what items can be redirected to a recyclable waste stream, rather than destined for incineration or landfill? One common stumbling block for some practices is the single-use wrapping that protects sterilised equipment before use. Whilst seemingly innocuous and small, it is a case of plastic waste that will add up over time. By recycling these wrappers before they came into contact with a contamination source, one observed practice saved up to 5kg in waste per week.[6]

Over a year, by just avoiding sending these wrappers to incineration, a practice could create an estimated saving of 0.55 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.6

 Apply this further to single-use plastics that create offensive waste, such as PPE, and the savings could only expand. Remember, until such an item is actively contaminated with infectious fluids, chemicals, or radiation, it is considered offensive – and therefore potentially recyclable – rather than hazardous or infectious.5

Alternative solutions

Whilst you work to improve your disposal workflows in the dental practice and identify further opportunities to recycle plastics, you should consider the types of products you use and recommend every day.

In the dental practice itself, HTM 07-01 suggests, where appropriate, that you replace disposable cleaning wipes with handcloths to implement more reusable products.5 You may choose to opt for products made of sustainable materials, and the key place to look may be your disposal solutions. These can often go unnoticed as a potential risk to the environment but are just as important as any other item in your practice.

Choosing an alternative like the new Griff Pac bins from Initial Medical helps you stay green, whilst carrying out effective disposal workflows. Designed to abide by your colour coding waste system, the Griff Pac bins made of corrugated lightweight corrugated polypropylene and are suitable for the disposal of larger volumes of plastics such as suction tips. Choosing the Griff Pac means your practice actively opts into reduced CO2 contributions by 25% in production and 40-50% in shipping, thanks to their lightweight and flatpack design. For greener ways to manage your waste, choose Initial Medical.

Some plastic waste in dentistry is unpreventable at this current moment in time. But with the awareness and action taken to improve disposal workflows and choose environmentally friendly alternatives, the dental practice can be a better place for the environment in years to come.


To find out more, get in touch at 0808 304 7411 or visit the website today


Rebecca Waters, Category Manager, Initial Medical

Rebecca has worked in the Healthcare sector for the past 17years and was a Research Chemist with Bayer Cropscience prior to joining Rentokil Initial in 2003.  She keeps up to date on all developments within the clinical waste management industry and is an active member of the CIWM, SMDSA and BDIA.   


– ENDS –

About Initial Medical

Initial Medical set the standard in healthcare and infectious waste management in the UK, providing a reliable, effective and fully compliant service built around customer needs and delivered by our highly trained local teams.  We are ISO 9001:2015 accredited, with technology fully integrated into our operations, providing full traceability of service delivery, electronic waste documentation and the best customer experience possible. We also offer innovative healthcare waste management services and infection control products, to help break the chain of transmission and prevent cross contamination.  

Initial Medical are a company with a ‘World Class’ Health and Safety record, and ISO 45001:2018 accreditation. We are also accredited to ISO 14001:2015 environmental standards, and pride ourselves on our sustainable approach with a focus on delivering eco-friendly products and operational solutions.

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[1] European Environment Agency, (2023). Plastics. (Online) Available at: [Accessed March 2024]

[2] Martin, N., Mulligan, S., Fuzesi, P., & Hatton, P. V. (2022). Quantification of single use plastics waste generated in clinical dental practice and hospital settings. Journal of Dentistry118, 103948.

[3] Martin, N., Mulligan, S., Fuzesi, P., Webb, T. L., Baired, H., Spain, S., Neal, T. J., Garforth, A. A., Tedstone, A. A., Hatton, P. V., (2020). Waste Plastics in Clinical Environments: A Multi-disciplinary Challenge. Plastics Reseach and Innovation Fund Conference, Creative Circular Economy Approaches to Eliminate Plastic Waste. (Online) Available at: [Accessed March 2024]

[4] Martin, N., Sheppard, M., Gorasia, G., Arora, P., Cooper, M., & Mulligan, S. (2021). Awareness and barriers to sustainability in dentistry: A scoping review. Journal of Dentistry112, 103735.

[5] NHS England, (2022). Health Technical Memorandum 07:01 Safe and sustainable management of healthcare waste. (Online) Available at: [Accessed March 2024]

[6] Richardson, J., Grose, J., Manzi, S., Mills, I., Moles, D. R., Mukonoweshuro, R., … & Nichols, A. (2016). What’s in a bin: A case study of dental clinical waste composition and potential greenhouse gas emission savings. British dental journal220(2), 61-66.

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