In orthodontic offices all over the world, plastic mountains are created every single day. This is my dramatization of the mass amount of aligners that are delivered, unpacked and stored in our office every day. Like many offices, the number of aligners that come through our office each day is rapidly increasing. Just ask our “Invisaleader” who is assigned the daunting task of managing all of these aligner cases. Invisalign, the largest aligner company on the market had reported 931,045 case shipments in 2017 and 1,228,065 case shipments in 2018. A case shipment can range between 5 to 100+ aligners for each case. It has been reported that Invisalign will produce about 320,000 custom aligner each day. As you can imagine, that is a ton of plastic!
Also on the rise is the global consciousness of our carbon footprint. As an orthodontist staring at the plastic mountains that are formed every day in the office and as an Invisalign patient racing through my own plastic trays, I find myself asking the same questions that all of you are asking. Should I be recycling my aligners?
Each aligner incrementally advances your tooth movement a bit closer to your end result. On average, each aligner is worn for 1 week before you advance to your next aligner. Common practice in orthodontic treatment it to always keep your previous aligner. We ask you to do this incase you lose your current aligner and are not ready to move forward to your next aligner. Popping in your previous aligner and notifying your orthodontist allows your teeth to remain in their position while your orthodontist orders a replacement aligner. Once you are done with that previous aligner, you should throw those aligners in the garbage. Why? You cannot recycle a medical waste product! These things have been soaking in your mouth for a week and like any other plastic that is used for medical purposes, it cannot be reused. That however is just one reason why we cannot recycle aligners. What about those aligners that have not been used?
You may find yourself with several unused aligners throughout your treatment and tempted to toss them into the recycling bin. While attending an orthodontic conference a few weeks ago Invisalign CEO, Joe Hogan, fielded some questions and concerns from orthodontist at the meeting. Amongst those concerns, was the question that both you and I have. Is Invisalign developing a program to recycle the unused aligners? What are they doing to minimize their carbon footprint? Joe brought to our attention that the patented SmartTrack material is a multi-layer polymer. It is unique in its properties of rigidity and elasticity. These qualities create ideal conditions for tooth movements. Unfortunately, a multi-layer polymer means that it is made up of several layers of plastic. If you will recall, most plastics have a number 1-7 on them. They are categorized as such because there is a different process for recycling each type of plastic and they should be sorted as such. Some of the plastics are not able to be recycled at all and have to be sorted out from the ones that are. Some facilities are only equipped to handle certain types of plastics because they are not equipped to handle the variety of plastics. Now add the fact that the Invisalign aligners cannot even be classified because they are made from a mixture of several types of plastics. This is the ultimate reason that they are not able to be recycled. At least for the time being. Joe did tell us that the scrap plastics created from the molds that the aligners are fabricated from are reused as fillers in things such as speed bumps, paneling, insultation, egg cartons, etc.
There are few things that we do these days that do not contribute to our carbon footprint. I am not here to tell you if this is right or wrong. I simply wanted to do my research to understand it a bit better so that I can more readily answer your questions as well as my own. We do know that better alignment of your teeth and jaws for some can reduce the occurrence of decay, improve your overall oral health, and improve your overall quality of life. I think orthodontic aligners are a great tool to achieve a healthy smile but perhaps traditional braces may sit easier with the more “green” folks out there. I would love to hear your thoughts! Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.
Gerald W. Wesley, DDS, MS