Skip to content

Combating climate change in the dental field: The UWSOD Climate Action Sustainability Team

While climate change and sustainability are topics that often dominate news headlines, the characters in their stories are typically corporations, politicians, environmentally active non-governmental organizations, and other entities that are fighting these issues at the largest scale. But with how critical of an issue climate change is, sustainability groups across the country are emerging in places where, to an unsuspecting eye, it may not seem like they’re needed.

The healthcare industry, as an example, is responsible for roughly 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and dentistry contributes to that figure in a variety of ways.

Single-use items like plastic barriers and sterilization pouches are composed of harmful chemicals and create significant carbon emissions during their manufacturing processes and distribution. Nitrous oxide (N20) is a very potent greenhouse gas used in that has 297 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and 17% of N20 emissions come from the health sector. Add in dated dental office equipment and buildings, frequent and lengthy patient and staff travel and use of more environmentally toxic materials, and the impact of current dental systems on the environment is obvious.

The CAST team after performing a waste audit in the pre-clinical lab at the School of Dentistry.
The CAST team after performing a waste audit in the pre-clinical lab at the School of Dentistry.

That’s why the UW School of Dentistry Climate Action Sustainability Team (UWSOD CAST) has sprouted on campus. A student-led group made up of a dozen students, faculty and staff, the mission of the UWSOD CAST is to integrate sustainability within the School and dental profession and to help foster a community that recognizes its role in combating climate change, valuing efforts towards a sustainable and equitable future.

“More and more dental students around the country are getting interested in (sustainability),” said Dr. Ivy Lin, the Assistant Director of the General Practice Residency at the UW School of Dentistry who is the faculty lead of the group. “We are in the process of organizing a brainstorming session with leaders of green groups from different schools to share ideas and learn from each other’s experiences.”

UW Medicine is one of the groups involved in increasing sustainability who CAST is looking for future ways to partner with, along with student coalitions from other dental schools around the country and potentially internationally.

Dr. Lin was a member of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine’s Sustainability Team while completing her master’s degree at the Harvard School of Public Health. She saw a vast variety of projects that Harvard was undertaking to decrease its waste and carbon emissions while there, inspiring her to continue and expand similar projects when she returned to the UW School of Dentistry as an assistant professor.

She established the first meeting for the UWSOD CAST team in Jan. 2023, which had eight attendees, and from there the group slowly began to grow once word got around of their initiatives.

“We would love to collaborate with different teams within the [School of Dentistry] to identify opportunities to decrease our environmental footprint while increasing financial sustainability and quality of patient care,” said Dr. Lin on how CAST plans to work with the School moving forward.

“The UWSOD has made sustainability a priority in our new strategic plan, which is great,” said Delbert Oxborrow, a now fourth-year student who will be the president of CAST for the 2024-25 academic year. Goal 5.4 of the School of Dentistry Strategic Plan is to “achieve sustainability in material resource management, while maintaining efficient operations of all School clinics, and applying sound environmental stewardship practices.”

“One way we can work together in the future is to champion this part of the plan by bringing up environmental concerns and suggesting solutions,” said Oxborrow. Solutions that Dr. Lin and Oxborrow mentioned include incorporating reusable versions of single-use items in clinics and classrooms, continuing teledentistry initiatives to reduce travel for appointments, and continuing to invest in new, energy-efficient equipment and spaces.

“The fact that this work was clearly outlined as a goal of our new strategic plan speaks volumes about how we as a school feel about being included in community-wide discussions about climate impact and sustainable practices,” said School of Dentistry Dean André Ritter. “Kudos to Dr. Lin for spearheading this initiative. I look forward to learning more about the work this group is doing, and to supporting that work.”

CAST team members planting trees on the Snoqualmie riverbank at an ‘Adopt-a-buffer event.
CAST team members planting trees on the Snoqualmie riverbank at an ‘Adopt-a-buffer event.

A highly remarked topic of conversation in the dental field is ‘digital dentistry’, which is an umbrella term for the implementation of new digital technologies within dental practice and research.

“Digital dentistry is a great opportunity to potentially reduce waste and emissions in our field,” said Dr. Lin. “However, no comprehensive life cycle assessment has been done comparing digital dentistry pathways and analogue prosthetic fabrication techniques, so we cannot be certain of the amount of benefit digital dentistry brings, if any.”

Dr. Lin notes that digital dentistry is a great example of the large amount of research that is needed to make evidence-based decisions in the scope of sustainability. CAST has already started contributing to research on the sustainability of various processes and equipment in dentistry and aims to further increase their impact in the near future. “For example, we are now working on a gloves usage reduction project,” said Dr. Lin.

“I am thrilled that our faculty, staff and students are zeroing in on environmental sustainability,” said Dean Ritter. “This is a topic I have been interested in for many years, as there are significant opportunities for dentistry as a profession to be part of this conversation, given the many ways in which our workflows, materials and instruments impact the environment.”

Cast LogoFor students, faculty or staff interested in joining CAST, the group has meetings during lunch every other week and periodically organizes events for the school community throughout the year. They also have a monthly newsletter for their events, an Instagram page (@uwsodcast) and you can email if you’re interested in joining the team, or for any questions or ideas you would like to share.