NHS dentistry and oral health update – with a green focus

15 November 2021
4 min read

Sara Hurley, chief dental officer, and Nick Watts, chief sustainability officer for NHS England and NHS Improvement, recently released a new NHS dentistry and oral health update, which focused on ‘green dentistry’, in line with the recent COP26.

In their opening address, they share, “As world leaders gather at COP26, one message is clear - the climate crisis is all our business. Right now, with the response to Covid-19 at the centre of our work, thinking about this area can be difficult. However, the response to climate change often directly improves the health of our patients and the consequences of not addressing the climate crisis are severe for all us - flooding, heatwaves, and even the epidemic spread of infectious disease will become more frequent and more severe.

“The NHS as a whole is taking action - we are the first health service in the world to commit to reaching net zero carbon emissions. Since 2010, efforts across the health service have resulted in NHS emissions being cut by 30 per cent. This is already improving care, as well as the health and wellbeing of our patients. Decisions have been made to invest in greener medicines, greener transport, greener buildings, and greener energy consumption.

“Despite this progress, there is still more to be done. The carbon impact of dentistry cannot be ignored. Analysis published in the BDJ in 2017 found that the carbon footprint of NHS dental services is 675 kilotonnes of CO2e each year, the same as powering over 610,000 UK homes. 

“Together, with the help of staff across the NHS, we hope to achieve even more. With more people involved, we stand every chance of meeting our target of becoming a net zero health service by 2040, improving the health outcomes of current and future generations.

“There is more to be done and we look forward to working with the NHS dental team on taking this agenda forward.”

In the bulletin, they discuss what reaching net zero carbon means for dentistry.

Discussing a greener NHS in more detail, they note, “In October 2020, NHS England became the world’s first health service to commit to reaching net-zero carbon. We know that around nine in 10 NHS staff support the NHS taking action to reduce its carbon footprint, but we also know that there are barriers to taking action, such as conflicting priorities, lack of awareness and understanding, and feeling overwhelmed by the challenge.

“With COP26 shining a light on the climate crisis, the Greener NHS team have launched a campaign to educate, inform and inspire NHS staff about the ambition to reach Net Zero, and the incredible work in the system that is already underway to achieve this.”

They also explain sustainable dentistry. “Sustainable dentistry considers how to ensure oral health for all fits within the context of limited natural resources, rising global temperatures, and increasing waste and physical pollution. It builds upon promoting equitable oral health and the prevention and control of dental diseases evident in public health dentistry. Sustainable dentistry involves providing dental care to patients within the wider context of health, environment and finances at the population level.


The update also includes some examples for dental teams wishing take action to make their practice more sustainable, taken from Sustainable Dentistry: How-to Guide for Dental Practices, published by the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, for example:

  • Travel: Sign up to the government’s ‘Cycle to Work Scheme’ – let staff know that it applies to e-bikes too – and install secure cycle parking.
  • Equipment: Adhere to government buying standards to ensure procured goods meet legal and sustainable standards, such as paper with a 75 per cent recycled content, or sustainably-sourced toilet paper.
  • Plastic: Consider reusable alternatives to disposable products, such as impression trays, prophy cups, Dappenspots and suction tips. Liaising with your suppliers and dental product manufacturers about the sustainability of their products nudges innovation and helps to add gravitas to consumer concerns.
  • Energy: Investing in clean energy generation isn’t accessible for everyone, so consider switching to a clean energy supplier, calibrating temperatures using a thermostatic system, and monitoring consumption using a smart meter. Insulating inefficient buildings is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve energy efficiency.
  • Waste: With many different waste systems, producing a simple waste guide for staff to clarify disposal categories can change the type, amount and cost of waste disposal for practices. Creating a recycling policy, contracting green services, and regular audits can all improve waste disposal and save money.
  • Recycling: The ‘TerraCycle Oral Care Recycling Programme’ accepts any brand of toothbrushes and toothpastes, along with their packaging, for the production of new recycled products. Click hereto find your nearest drop-off location. There is also a scheme accepting dental aligners and cases for recycling, click here to learn more.
  • Biodiversity and green space: Waiting in well-ventilated areas has never been more pertinent. Providing green outdoor areas with native, insect-friendly plants instead of manicured lawns and tarmac helps the local ecosystem and has proven mental health benefits for patients and staff.  

The update concludes with the feature, ‘By word of mouth… the colleagues we’re all talking about” – which in this instance, is Steve Mulligan.

“Steve is a practicing dentist based in South Yorkshire and part time academic researcher within the School of Clinical Dentistry at The University of Sheffield alongside Professor Nicolas Martin as his main collaborator. His research includes investigating the environmental impacts of dental materials, integrating sustainability into oral healthcare, including sustainability in the dental undergraduate curriculum, and investigating the attitudes and opinions of the public to sustainability within oral healthcare.

“Steve is a founding member of the FDI World Dental Federation Sustainability in Dentistry Task Team, which is working alongside major dental industry companies to map out strategies and implement solutions to help reduce the environmental impact of dentistry and the dental industry in the supply chain.”