Status Quo H2’22
insightsZ estimates that an increasing number of Gen Z and millennial patients are willing to choose clear aligner brands that they perceive as sustainable over others. Major category brands are obviously responding to this consumer behavior by activating their brand marketing and PR teams accordingly. However, more often than not, the PR and communication mouthpiece of organizations have been accused of green washing – that is, communicating brand messaging that sound better for the environment than they actually are.
Looking at the broader economy, especially in the recent years, such greenwashing campaigns received little scrutiny, if at all. However, the status quo is changing faster than we realize. We are increasingly seeing class action lawsuits against global consumer marketing brands like H&M, McDonald’s among others - who were accused of greenwashing, as both regulators and customers become less inclined to accept disingenuous messaging around sustainability and environment.
Clear Aligner brands contributing to Plastic Burden
FY 21, more than 50 million aligner trays were manufactured worldwide – putting an increased plastic burden on the environment. Not just that, AAO (American Association of Orthodontists) recently updated its standards and guidelines, recommending clearly that children as young as seven can be candidates for clear aligner treatment.
In other words, as the average age for clear aligner treatment drops, coupled with the category’s high double-digit YoY organic growth rate, this may put additional burden on the environment, eventually creating the need for sustainable clear aligner solutions – in both pre-treatment as well as post-treatment scenarios.
Brand Leaders attempt at Green Marketing
A while back, one of the industry’s leading clear aligner brands announced a pilot program in North America in association with TerraCycle™. This pilot aims at recycling clear aligners to give them a second life in other consumer products. While the global ESG watchdogs and ‘green’ investors have been excited by the brand’s endeavors at reducing its environmental footprint; speculators and industry pundits look highly suspicious about the pilot’s deliverables and scalability.
The rationale is pretty clear – less than 8 percent of the global recyclable plastics are actually recycled, whereas the remaining 92 percent plastics finds its way to landfill sites and oceans. insightsZ estimates that the percentage of aligners and related packaging that gets recycled is less than 1 percent – seriously contributing to the planet’s choking burden.
However, clear aligner brands are not alone at venturing into green marketing. Major DSO brands across EU and Australia are equally vociferous about their greenwashing efforts - often entering into strategic partnerships with local waste management companies with the objective of recycling clear aligner plastics and packaging that would otherwise end up in the landfill or ocean.
Nevertheless, just like their peers from the aligner manufacturing category, no DSOs have published any reports about the deliverables and outcomes of their sustainability pilot programs.
Existing Regulations and Workaround
Today, the most common way for clear aligners to be disposed of is in the regular trash bin at home, before finally making their way to a landfill or worse off, the ocean.
The existing regulatory framework has had a major impact on any clear aligner brand’s recyclable attempts. That is, local North American regulations stipulate that clear aligner be classified as ‘contaminated medical waste’, which limits the potential for recycling.
Going forward, a possible solution could be educating patients and HCPs about the post-clinical handling of clear aligners. One of the possible ways to enable circular economy-based reprocessing + recycling is encouraging patients to drop off their clear aligners at dental offices so that they can be sanitized before making their way out to a recycling unit. Not only such maneuvers enable circumventing the existing regulatory policies, but also promise better outcomes for recycling projects & sustainability goals.
Nevertheless, one should neither overestimate the success that such pilot programs promise, nor their ambitions in terms of scale.
Quick Wins and Low-hanging fruits
A more realistic interpretation of achievable sustainability goals in the clear aligner space is packaging – representing a possible quick win. Broadly speaking, many clear aligner brands are still relying on plastic packaging for storage and delivery of clear aligners.
While we certainly don’t expect the global markets to abandon clear aligners in the name of sustainability and resort back to metal braces and wires, nevertheless, transitioning to eco-friendly materials is an easy leap from the status quo.
ClearX Aligners and Sustainability
Another Germany-based clear aligner manufacturer K Line Europe is changing the status quo around sustainability by developing advanced thermoplastic materials and enabling technologies. This AI-based tech will enable the same set of clear aligner trays to be reprocessed and used for further corrections – reducing the total number of trays required to achieve the same treatment outcome, while also reducing the environmental footprint.
In other words, the same set of aligners can be worn for +3 weeks as the trays occupy subsequent shapes and forms – greatly reducing the plastic burden of clear aligner treatments. Not just that, brand ClearX cooperates closely with Ocean Blue Project, an ocean cleanup organization that has removed +240,000 pounds of microplastics from oceans till this day. Closely mimicking the carbon-credits trade, the non-profit organization, Ocean Blue Project removes a pound of plastics for every dollar invested. Unlike in-house sustainability initiatives, such open partnerships encourage better transparency and accountability when it comes to monitoring sustainability KPIs.
Transparency in Communication
Transparency and accountability are at the core of communication around ESG goals – both management teams as well as regulators need to acknowledge this, and enable the systems and processes around that principle.
Unfortunately, we have not seen any clear reporting or audits concerning how leading clear aligner brands are actually delivering in terms of their announced pilots or sustainability initiatives. This brings us back to this article’s title about greenwashing and hope that the market forces will come into effect and enable the following (over mid/long term):
1. Innovative clear aligner materials will become bio-degradable. Alternatively, fewer number of trays will be required during the course of the clear aligner treatment (ClearX aligners).
2. Regional policy makers will include provisions and impositions for clear aligner waste management on HCPs and clear aligner manufacturers.