Plastic Around The World – A Sustainability Question
by Holly Dougherty
The wind at my back, I am driving on a motorbike in Indonesia, with my eyes greedily taking in all the stunning sights. Azure waters, idyllic sugary beaches, and lush greenery paints picturesque landscapes. However, as I fly along, breathing the balmy air, I also note a sad reality – heaps of garbage littering the countryside, spoiling the unadulterated beauty of a town not yet rife with McDonalds or Starbucks. I continue on to a magnificent beach with turquoise waters and pale sand, trying to ignore the eyesore of the heaps of plastic, abandoned flip-flops and rubbish piled along the outskirts.
I am on the island of Nusa Penida, the site of a viral video released two years ago, which followed a British scuba diver through dismal amounts of waste.
Nusa Penida’s locals explained that the video was slightly misleading; the waste was primarily from the popular island of Bali, which mixed with careless littering from tourist ships and unlucky tides and ended up there. My underwater experience in Nusa Penida was much cleaner, with incredible visibility complete with manta rays, an octopus and turtles. However, many other stunning countries and sights have been tainted with unsightly rubbish. Many tourists complain of the dirtiness of this, and I tend to agree — I see it as a Great Sadness of what is becoming of Mother Earth.
This is very normal occurrence for the views I have witnessed over the 16 months I’ve spent in Asia, Central and South America. I understand why this is present in impoverished areas – if people are worried about whether or not they can procure food for the next week, their priority is not where they properly dispose of a shampoo container. However, those of us blessed with comparatively privileged lives can aim to do more. Many places are organizing beach clean-ups, promoting water bottle refills and banning single-use plastic straws.
In our world of great supply and over consumption, waste becomes a natural byproduct. While we are so lucky to have so many handy, convenient options at our fingertips, sometimes it comes at a great cost.
Plastic bags and other plastic trash ends up in our oceans and every year can kill as many as one million sea animals. 
“79% of the plastic produced over the last 70 years has been thrown into landfill sites or into the environment, with only 9% of it being recycled and the rest incinerated. 8 million tonnes of plastic enters our oceans each year. Plastic does not naturally biodegrade but breaks down into smaller ‘micro-plastics’. It can absorb other chemicals and can enter the food chain, poisoning wildlife, destroying ecosystems and putting human health at risk.” 
It’s no wonder that the once pristine white sand beaches are overshadowed by cluttered, washed up plastic.
As I look at the rubbish, I wonder what I can do to stop contributing to this Great Sadness that threatens our future generations. The U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development Sustainability defines sustainability as development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.  What can we do to meet the needs of the present while looking out for the future?
I try to maintain a balance, but I am far from perfect. While I attend beach clean-ups, try to limit my meat consumption, and refill my reusable water bottle as much as possible, I realize how much every day consumption and waste I still participate in: online shopping, avocado eating and an unfortunately extremely large carbon footprint I’ve left from many airplane flights.
I do however, think of what my role is in the community and the greater globe.
As an Alaskan, I was not actively taught to recycle or skip excess plastic usage. In September 2019, we finally did the municipality wide plastic bag ban — 8 years after Portland and a whopping 17 years after Bangladesh.  However, I do feel as Alaskans we tend to care greatly about our outdoors, exemplified by practices such as Pack It Out (if only to avoid future run-ins with cuddly bears) and Leave No Trace. I am incredibly spoiled with the almost completely unspoiled wilderness at home.
However, one major downfall I have recently realized in my career as a dental hygienist is my over-dispensing of plastic toothbrushes and flossing aids.
I love my patients dearly, I care about their oral and systemic health, and want to shower them with tools to do aid my mission. When patients told me they wouldn’t use a plastic toothbrush because they were using an electric, I would try to encourage them anyway, saying “Take one for camping or flying or just in case.” I never like to leave them empty handed, and erred on the side of over-generosity.
Until I went to Asia. Buying a water (unfortunately the water is non-potable and sometimes bottled water is the only way to go), I received a plastic bottle, with a plastic protective covering around the plastic cap, complete with a plastic straw also covered with a plastic wrapping, in a plastic 7 eleven bag. Plastic. Plastic. Plastic. Plastic is everywhere — even mosquito repellent cream comes in single-application plastic packaging. This, teamed with the unsightly piles of rubbish, slapped me across the face. I stopped accepting plastic bags whenever possible and started thinking.
Since then, when dispensing patient bags I gear them specifically for the patient and ask exactly what they will use. I realize that hundreds of plastic toothbrushes are washing up on the oceans because of the over-distribution that I was a part of.
Because they are non-biodegradable, every plastic toothbrush produced since their invention in 1938 (and the subsequent plastic packaging), is still existing somewhere — in landfills, oceans, and sometimes the side of the road. 
Again, where do we find the balance? As an oral health advocate, I do not allow this as a sound excuse to skip brushing and flossing.
I explore what I can do in my personal and professional life. In dentistry, I want to encourage optimal oral health practices, while also making a future possible for the next generations. The FDI World Dental Federation has said that:
“Dentistry as a profession should integrate sustainable development goals into daily practice and support a shift to a green economy in the pursuit of healthy lives and well- being for all through all stages of life.” 
By nature, dentistry tends to use a lot of resources, but I am really proud to be part of a legacy that is making strides in sustainability. Not only do we participate in such waste-reducing practices such as using online charts, digital radiographs and encouraging reusable technologic self care tools (such as the Waterpik or Sonicare toothbrush), but we have finally switched from plastic to paper “goody bags”. Just this small switch is progress, and I take note of other healthy habits we encourage – such as biking to appointments, and a focus on preventive dentistry which promotes optimal health, which is also a key component in reducing wasteful output. I am so thankful that I am part of a team that is beginning to embrace this shift. I am now hopeful and impressed in the new focus of this generation in finding a balance and caring about our future, our community, and our globe.
What can you do?
Check out this link:
“Plastic Ain’t so Fantastic”, Ocean Crusaders Foundation LTD, 2019
Brett Duane, Sara Hartford, Frances Mortimer, Darshini Ramasubbu, “Sustainable Dentistry: How-to Guide for Dental Practices”, Centre For Sustainable Healthcare, January 23, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Brett_Duane/publication/330566930_Sustainable_Dentistry_How-to_Guide_for_Dental_Practices_Sustainable_Dentistry_How_to_Guide_for_Dental_Practices_Sustainable_Dentistry_How-to_Guide_for_Dental_Practices/links/5c48d4fda6fdccd6b5c42a87/Sustainable-Dentistry-How-to-Guide-for-Dental-Practices-Sustainable-Dentistry-How-to-Guide-for-Dental-Practices-Sustainable-Dentistry-How-to-Guide-for-Dental-Practices.pdf?origin=publication_detail
“Sustainability in Dentistry”, FDI World Dental Federation, August 2017,
Carole Excell, “127 Countries Now Regulate Plastic Bags. Why Aren’t We Seeing Less Pollution?” World Resources Institute, March 11 2019,
Alejandra Borunda “How your toothbrushe became part of the plastic crisis”, National Geographic Society, June 14 2019,https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/06/story-of-plastic-toothbrushes/
For a great extra resource, including a variety of different recycling ways, from going “green” in college, encouraging campus sustainability, alternatives for plastic, how to create policy changes, and a ton more, check out