Is investing in environmentally sustainable buildings, equipment and materials really worth it? Three Northwest dentists believe it is. Besides feeling like the right and responsible thing to do, making a practice more “green” can save money in purchasing and operating costs. In a region where many people care deeply about the environment, it can be a helpful marketing tool. Green spaces also tend to be healthier because they contain fewer toxic materials and have better indoor air quality. That’s a big benefit for you, your staff and your patients.
Moving your practice to a more eco-friendly path can be done with anything from a tiny hop to a giant leap. Learn from these dentists’ experiences, and check out our resources for getting your business to greener pastures.
Lower Water and Energy Usage
Purchasing the right equipment or making changes to your physical space can go a long way toward conserving energy and water. General dentist Dr. Jason McMillan, DDS, owner of Mint Dental Works in Portland, Oregon, was the first dentist in the United States to build a practice to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines. LEED, which was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, provides a set of specifications for building green homes, commercial buildings, schools and other spaces. There are different levels within the program, ranging from certified to platinum.
During construction, McMillan’s contractor installed LED and fluorescent light fixtures, which help conserve energy. (People without these fixtures can switch their bulbs to more efficient and longer-lasting varieties.) The HVAC system is highly energy efficient.
Other ways to reduce energy usage including purchasing Energy Star-certified appliances and electronics, including dishwashers and computers, and using light sensors instead of switches. They will automatically turn off lights in unoccupied rooms.
To save water, Mint Dental Works uses dry evacuation systems in treatment rooms. McMillan asks his staff to use hand sanitizer to cut down on hand washing. This, combined with low-flow water fixtures and toilets, was expected to save his practice an estimated 200,000 gallons of water a year.
Another way to lower water usage is to put native or low-water plants outside the building. General dentist Dr. Brandon White, DDS, owner of White Dental Studio in the small town of Ashland, Oregon, practices in a building where the manager has done this. It adds another green element to his environmentally-friendly practice.
White acknowledges that it may not make sense for existing practices to make big investments in green equipment and fixtures all at once. But as items need to be replaced, look for newer and greener alternatives. Many also include innovative features that make practices easier and more efficient to operate.
Reduce Consumption of Other Products
Dr. Steve Stanley, DDS, who provides general, family and cosmetic dentistry in Shoreline, Washington, recently became certified by EnviroStars, a Washington program that provides consulting and recognition to green businesses. Office manager Alison Scott says one of the main benefits of the program was the advice they received from a program representative about ways to become even more eco-friendly. That included a recommendation to update their purchasing practices.
“We now order on an as-needed basis instead of getting a steady stream of supplies,” she reports. “That way we can prevent things from expiring and wasting products.” Improving inventory control has also saved them money.
White has similar buying practices, and he purchased products in bulk whenever possible. “That way there aren’t lots of little packages to throw away,” he says.
Reuse and Recycle
The Mint Dental Works office features a variety of reused materials. All of the interior doors are second-hand pieces that McMillan stripped, sanded and painted himself. Much of the office furniture is used, which gives the space a funky vibe that clients appreciate. Countertops are made of recycled concrete.
White also incorporated salvaged materials into his space. The office had previously been leased by a physical therapist, so it had cabinets, countertops and shelves he could use. “Anything we pulled out that was going to have to go away, we donated to colleagues or friends who had uses for them in other projects,” he says. (Materials donated to a nonprofit such as a Habitat for Humanity ReStore may be tax-deductible.) The desk and furniture in the lobby were built from materials taken out of a warehouse that was being renovated.
Reuse is always better than recycling because products don’t have to be remanufactured, a process that consumes large volumes of energy. But recycling is still an important part of being more earth-friendly. When the construction team started work on McMillan’s new office, he asked them to recycle construction and demolition waste whenever possible. In the end, 75 percent of it was diverted from local landfills.
“I recycle everything at home, so I want to recycle here,” says Stanley. The office has a long-standing habit of recycling paper, light bulbs, batteries and anything else they can.
Not only does this practice add to their green cred, it boosts staff morale. “Being in Seattle, there’s more importance placed on recycling and being green,” says Scott. “We all feel good about what we’re doing at work.”
To cut down on the amount of paper that needs to be recycled, White advocates going digital. When he opened his practice in 2014 his staff used digital patient forms and other electronic communications as much as possible. Patients increasingly expect this, he points out, and it’s the way the industry is going for a number of reasons.
White uses ECOtip HVE tips, which are made of heavy-duty compostable paper. Dentists can purchase supply bags and bamboo toothbrushes that are biodegradable.
Another good green habit is to buy supplies made with recycled materials.
Use recycled-content printer paper, and have marketing materials and business cards printed on it. There are manufacturers that make saliva ejectors and toothbrushes from recycled plastic.
Create a healthy environment
There’s a human side to sustainability that people often don’t think about. One of McMillan’s reasons for investing in a LEED building was a desire to create a quality environment for patients and staff. “We’re in the business of health care,” says McMillan. “Why not create the healthiest environment to provide care for our patients?”
His office uses a system that continually flushes stale air out and draws fresh air in. Not only does this improve the quality of the air in the building, it eliminates unpleasant smells. This is important because the distinct scent that greets patients when they step into the dentist’s office can be a trigger for anxiety, he points out.
Paints and adhesives in McMillan and White’s offices have no or low VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which can continually off-gas. Instead of buying particleboard cabinets, McMillan ordered custom-build versions made with composite materials that did not include urea formaldehyde.
White decorated his office with live and preserved plants as much as possible. The preserved plants create a warm environment that clients love, he says. Live plants improve the air’s breathability.
All three dentists have digital X-rays, which means they don’t have to dispose of the chemicals or heavy metal-laced films required by old systems. White says this saves time, as there’s no need to transport materials to a hazardous waste facility. It also saves money since digital systems don’t require developing supplies.
Stanley further reduced toxic materials in his practice by replacing glutaraldehyde with another disinfectant.
Why go green?
It’s worth noting that making a practice greener can be time-consuming. McMillan struggled to manage his existing practice and put time into creating his new space. (His wife Rebecca took on a lot of the work associated with the construction process, which was a big help.) McMillan spent many hours researching green building products and systems. Stanley’s staff had to devote time to filling out the EnviroStars paperwork and meeting with the consultant.
But in the end, they all feel it was worth it. There’s a certain amount of personal pride that comes from setting up an eco-friendly practice. “Everyone should pay more attention to not wasting and being green,” says Stanley. “From a personal point of view, I want to be environmentally friendly.”
There are good business reasons to do it too. Lowering waste and consumption means practices save money every month. Although eco-friendly materials sometimes have higher upfront costs, lower utility and trash bills over the long term can offer enough savings to make up for it.
McMillan suspected crafting a LEED building would be a good marketing tool in eco-friendly Portland, and he was right. The green moniker, as well as patient referrals, have generated enough business that McMillan has never done much advertising.
“If you think about it, we moved in June 2007, not long before the recession, and we never saw a downturn,” he says. “We had continual growth throughout the worst economy in a generation. In some ways I attribute that to how we chose to build the office and the position we took on sustainability and what’s important to our community at large.”
White says most of his business has come from the patient network he developed while working at other practices, as well as referrals from those clients. It was never his intention to use his green credentials as is primary marketing tool. However, he believes it helps him attract more patients. People who live farther away make an effort to come see him, which also broadens his referral network.
Both McMillan and White undertook ambitious efforts at creating green practices because they hoped their stories would motivate other dentists to follow similar paths. “Anyone looking at going green in their business won’t regret it once they decide it’s worth the investment and time,” says White. “They’ll find aspects of that overflowing into their personal lives and their acquaintances’ lives. They’ll find other people who find what they’re doing inspiring, and you never know—you might find somebody who decides to change their own business based on the groundwork that you laid.”