Ostrow Goes Green
01 Nov 21
Single-use gowns, paper towels, gloves, plastic packaging and butcher paper can make dental education’s carbon footprint large, but the Ostrow Sustainability Group aims to change that paradigm — teaching dental students how to practice dentistry without trashing the planet.
THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS CAUSING MANY OF US TO EXAMINE every aspect of our lives — including the healthcare sector, which comprises 10 percent of our nation’s carbon emissions. Think about the amount of single-use items used during a standard doctor’s appointment to maintain safety protocols.
Dental education adds to this sizable carbon footprint through the disposal of large amounts of single-use gowns, paper towels, gloves, plastic packaging and butcher paper. Galvanized by USC President Carol Folt’s focus on sustainability, the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC is exploring ways in which it can be more ecologically conscious.
Recycling and conservation have always been priorities for Yaara Berdan, assistant professor of clinical dentistry. Currently pursuing an MBA with a certificate in business and sustainability, Berdan conducted a study as part of the program that explored how dentistry could minimize its environmental impact without affecting the safety and quality of treatment.
The study states that its “purpose … was to determine attitudes toward sustainability at the dental school and to evaluate areas of waste and discover areas for improvement.” The three-pronged approach included a sustainability survey that was sent to all students, faculty and staff; a trash audit of the simulation labs in which waste was categorized; and the creation of a student sustainability group to help promote efforts from the student perspective.
“I was really encouraged by the interest I received,” Berdan says. The survey revealed a general interest from participants about recycling and reducing waste. There was also a demonstrated desire to learn more about the relationship between dentistry and sustainability. What surprised Berdan most about her research findings was the sheer amount of unopened and unused items that were thrown away, such as gauze, gloves, Vaseline packaging and floss singles.
“Part of the problem is just convenience,” she explains.
USC is where Natalie Black DDS ’23 first learned about the importance of sustainability. “It didn’t click until I entered dental school and President Carol Folt took over, because she really emphasized it,” Black says. Now president of the Ostrow Sustainability Group (OSG), which was formed as a result of Berdan’s study, Black leads the organization made up of 33 students in its mission to raise environmental and sustainability awareness at Ostrow and among the surrounding USC community.
“With the healthcare industry, you have to make sure everything is clean and sterilized,” Black explains. “My goal is to increase students’ education on sustainability with the hope that they will think about it at least a little bit more within the scope of their practice.”
OSG is doing so by hosting informational lectures on sustainability, publishing a bimonthly newsletter that covers conservation topics, and sharing events and tips on its Instagram account (@ostrowgoesgreen).
“We just hosted a lecture with someone in facilities management,” Black says. “It was really helpful to hear her perspective; it’s eye-opening for students to work with staff who see the all the waste on campus day to day.”
In addition to raising awareness on matters of sustainability, Berdan hopes OSG will be able to transform this new way of thinking into a formal part of the dental curriculum. “We need to make people aware of how healthcare contributes to carbon emissions,” says Berdan, who serves as the OSG faculty advisor. “COVID made the issue so much more glaring because now we’re using more disposable and not reusable personal protective equipment.”
BE THE CHANGE
Berdan’s vision for the future includes having Ostrow adopt official sustainability policies that dictate “this is how we do things at USC.”
And Black plans to expand her reach beyond dentistry by educating students about how to be more environmentally friendly at home. “Nordstrom has this new program where you can recycle old beauty products, so it’d be great to have a drive at school and then do a series on how much waste we produce with beauty products.”
While some may contend it’s too expensive to go green, Berdan says the dental industry needs to look for creative solutions to reduce both waste and costs. For example, at Ostrow’s simulation lab, transitioning from disposable gowns to reusable gowns will save almost $40,000 annually. Based off numbers from a study in England, Berdan found the highest proportion of carbon emissions comes from travel, both by patients and staff. She believes teledentistry has the potential to improve patient communication and help the environment.
“Dentistry’s hands-on. You can’t do a thorough exam virtually, but when a patient comes in, the first step is to ask about subjective symptoms and talk to them,” Berdan explains. “We could get so much done over the phone.”
Black agrees and says telehealth would be incredibly valuable to dentistry. “When patients come into the school, there’s a screening appointment where we do a thorough patient interview, take down their medical history and log their medications. In private practice, it runs a little bit differently, but there’s a whole appointment that could likely be eliminated. It’s something that could be exciting and hopeful for the future.”
Berdan is not worried about the threat of complacency or anyone who’d rather cling to the ideology of “this is the way we’ve always done things.” “You’re going to hear some of that, but we just need to show that this new way actually makes sense and isn’t a burden,” she says. “We’re saving money. We’re saving time. That’s the way you’re going to get things to change.”
THE FUTURE IS SUSTAINABLE
When it comes down to it, integrating sustainability into the dental field will require a balancing act of innovation and stringent safety. But it’s one Black says the next generation of dental practitioners is ready to take on.
“Students are open to learning more and coming up with ideas about what we can do at the school to improve sustainability,” she says. We sent out survey and there were so many responses such as, ‘Why don’t we have reusable this or reusable that?’ It makes sense since we are the future.”
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