If you’ve ever sat in the dentist’s chair and wondered where all the latex gloves, chemicals, and x-ray films end up, or stopped to consider how much water and electricity the office uses, you aren’t alone. Some dentists are starting to take off their protective eyewear and see the bigger picture.

In September 2006, Bob Bhamra opened the UK’s and perhaps the world’s first carbon neutral dental practice, Jiva Dental in Kingston, just southwest of London.

On a tour of the office, Bhamra explains that the wooden floors are made from sustainable wood, the plant-based, marmoleum floor coverings are fully biodegradable and naturally inhibit bacterial growth. The lighting is low-energy in the communal areas and low-voltage in the treatment rooms; renewable energy provider Ecotricity powers the practice. The heating and cooling units are the most energy-efficient on the market, the computer screens are energy-star rated, and all the water in the practice goes through a filter that diminishes calcium and other deposits, increasing the longevity of the instruments and reducing the need for maintenance.

Instead of traditional x-rays, the practices uses digital ones that emit 90 percent less radiation, require no chemicals to be processed, and the phosphor x-ray plates can be reused.

Bhamra says there are still steps he could take to make the practice even greener. “It doesn’t stop here,” he says, adding that he’s “thinking about the possibility of a solar panel on the roof.”

Dentists across the pond are going green, too. In Southeast Portland for example, Mint Dental Works is poised to become the nation's first LEED-certified dental practice. Dentist Jason McMillan and his wife, Rebecca, have installed equipment that keeps the mouth moist during treatment without using lots of water, saving a staggering gallon per minute. Dual-flush-valve toilets and sinkless treatment rooms (hand sprays are used to sterilize hands) are just some of the other measures designed to keep water use to a minimum.

Down south in Athens, Georgia, drought makes the water situation even more precarious. To help conserve the resource, the Athens Family Dental Center encourages staff and patients to frequent the porta-potties out back instead of regular toilets. They also hand out water-saving tip sheets to all patients

Back in Kingston, Bhamra says he hopes to do more than reduce waste and tread more lightly. “It’s about getting people to think responsibly,” he says, “to think about how we fit into things, to think about our neighbors on this planet.”

For Catherine Bazan, a dental nurse and receptionist who has been at Jiva since it opened, working in an office where all the waste is separated and recycled and water is used sparingly has made these behaviors “automatic.” She says, “This place makes me feel good.”

Patient Miche Fabre Lewin read about the carbon-neutral practice and decided to try it out despite living about an hour away by train. Everything about the experience, from the space, its eco-credentials, to the service and care provided, were thoughtful and conscious. “Dr Bhamra even invited me to bring my own music for my treatment” (the unenviable extraction of two wisdom teeth). “It was a great blend of low-tech and high-tech,” she says. “I’m trying to turn all my friends on to him.”

With people like Bhamra and the McMillans showing the way forward, the days of low-impact dentistry may be just around the corner. Just don’t be surprised if you are asked not to flush!

Story by Givanna Dunmall. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in March 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008