By Brian La Plante
Sustainability has risen to the top of the corporate agenda in many industries, including the medical device market. Part of the push toward environmental stewardship is coming from healthcare systems, with Europe leading the way. For example, the United Kingdom’s NHS is striving to become the world’s first carbon net zero national health system by 2040.1 It aims to achieve the same goal with its wider supplier chain, which includes 80,000 suppliers, by 2045. This goal was backed by many NHS suppliers at the recent COP26 conference2 — a positive signal for the medical device industry’s commitment to reduce emissions.
The complexity of forming “closed loop” recycling and reuse systems at the point of healthcare delivery makes manufacturing design for sustainability crucial for meaningful progress. To maximize success, medical device manufacturers must think about sustainability holistically. This includes prioritizing it at the beginning of the design phase and considering the entire life cycle of the device while balancing the need for safety, functionality, and durability — all imperatives for medical devices.
Material & Product Design Considerations
The reality is that most CO2 emissions are associated with the product itself, making material selection one of the most critical decisions in the design process. There are a few factors that manufacturers should consider during this phase. For example, using a single material to manufacture the device — even if device design calls for multiple layers — offers significant benefits, including the ability to recycle it more easily at the end of life.
Recycled materials that can be used without losing their technical properties or requiring the addition of virgin material is another way to significantly reduce the impact of a product’s carbon footprint. If we look at polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as an example, recycled PET has up to 79% lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than virgin PET. That is a significant difference, making the use of recycled materials one of the easiest ways to make a positive impact.
Beyond material selection, manufacturers should design with disassembly in mind, including seeking ways to reduce the number of components included in the device. Keeping components to a minimum simplifies product assembly as well as the process of taking it apart at the end of the product’s useful life.
Incorporating sustainability into the design plan from day one, rather than trying to reverse engineer solutions when the process is further along, will allow manufacturers to make the most of these opportunities. It is also harder to move the needle in a meaningful way when manufacturers ask suppliers to provide technologies against existing specs. Instead, medical device manufacturers should partner with their chosen suppliers early on to leverage their experience and supply chain relationships to yield the most creative and beneficial solutions.
Managing For End Of Life: Design For Reprocessing
One of the reasons that sustainability progress has been slow in the medical device industry is the current logistical and design challenges of products at the end of their useful life. For example, disposable surgical drapes include both polypropylene and polyethylene; each can be recycled alone, but together they cannot be recycled. In addition, recycling or reprocessing a medical device carries a much higher risk if it has been contaminated by blood or other substances. The path of least resistance is the red bag and incinerator. That said, product design changes the system and allows healthcare providers to consider other alternatives.
According to the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors,3 100% of the U.S. News and World Report “Top Hospitals” use reprocessed single-use medical devices, as did 39 out of 39 U.S. military hospitals. Reprocessing volume has been growing exponentially in recent years. Medical device component and OEM manufacturers can support the continued growth of a more circular medical device circular production system, rather than the traditional “take-make-waste” linear system. Design strategies that allow for reprocessing enable a “virtuous cycle” of environmental sustainability.
But with U.S. healthcare facilities generating an estimated 1 million tons of non-infectious plastic waste every year,4 there is a lot of opportunity to improve recycling in the industry. Capturing even a fraction of these materials and putting them into the recycling process could add up to meaningful change. Of course, it requires manufacturers to choose their materials wisely, as discussed earlier in this article. Some of the more viable material options for recycling include polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene (PE), and PET.
In addition to independent reprocessing companies, a growing number of OEMs have their own reprocessing operations. Metals offer the widest range of reprocessing options and polymers require additional considerations to ensure compliance to specifications post-reprocessing. Design for reprocessing requires materials science knowledge and experience in both areas.
Identifying The Right Partner
In the medical device industry, reducing the environmental impact of medical devices is a “one size fits one” proposition. The challenges are complicated and require effective and efficient collaboration. Here are three factors to consider when seeking out a supplier partner:
- Do they have engineering expertise and experience that is deep in their particular product area and extends broadly into other engineered processes and products?
- Do they “get it” about environmental sustainability? Have they themselves been “walking the walk” in their own practices for a long time? Or is the ink still wet on their sustainability commitment statement?
- Do they understand the bigger picture of your product performance requirements and your business needs?
The Role of Supply Chain & Transport
While material inputs are a significant driver of the carbon footprint of medical devices, the manufacturing and distribution processes should also be considered when seeking to enhance the sustainability of a product. For example, what steps can be taken to reduce energy and water and chemical use? This includes using energy derived from clean, renewable resources. How is waste generated during the manufacturing process handled and/or disposed of? Are warehousing and manufacturing locations strategically located to minimize the distance products need to be shipped?
Additionally, container ships used to import products are extremely high contributors to GHG emissions. According to one source,5 just 15 of the largest container “mega ships” make the same amount of pollution as all the cars in the world combined. Sourcing in-region reduces the carbon footprint of medical devices.
When choosing partners to work with, consider how they manufacture their own products. Do they take a similar approach? Do they employ LEAN manufacturing practices? If so, those are good signs about their own commitment to sustainability and they likely have best practices that can be shared with their customers.
There is reason to be optimistic about the prospects for improved sustainability in the medical device industry. Medical device manufacturers can advance their own progress by aligning with suppliers and partners that prioritize sustainability in their own businesses, including ethical sourcing and demonstrate a willingness to innovate in collaboration with customers to find the best solutions. The need for substantial, systematic improvement in sustainability in the healthcare sector is obvious, urgent, and complex. Medical device manufacturers can make the crucial difference by forming product design partnerships to overcome regulatory, production, sourcing, and materials challenges to meet this need.
- NHS, “NHS becomes the world’s first national health system to commit to become ‘carbon net zero’, backed by clear deliverables and milestones,” October 1, 2020, https://www.england.nhs.uk/greenernhs/2020/10/nhs-becomes-the-worlds-first-national-health-system-to-commit-to-become-carbon-net-zero-backed-by-clear-deliverables-and-milestones/
- NHS, “Healthier future inspires major NHS suppliers to step-up net zero ambitions,” November 5, 2021, https://www.england.nhs.uk/greenernhs/2021/11/blog-healthier-future-inspires-major-nhs-suppliers-to-step-up-net-zero-ambitions/
- Association of Medical Device Reprocessors (AMDR), “Reprocessing by the Numbers,” https://amdr.org/reprocessing-by-the-numbers/
- Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, “Why Recyclers Should Consider Healthcare Plastics as a Valuable Feedstock,” January 23, 2019, https://www.hprc.org/single-post/2019/01/22/recyclers-advantage-healthcare-plastics
- iNews, “Shipping produces more carbon emissions than most countries and pollutes the oceans. Will slowing vessels or making them electric do enough?” Updated July 17, 2020, https://inews.co.uk/news/long-reads/cargo-container-shipping-carbon-pollution-114721
About The Author:
Brian La Plante is manager of sustainability at YKK Global Marketing Group, where he is responsible for helping to develop sustainability strategy and identifying new materials and technologies. With a lifelong interest in environmental impact and sustainability, he has been focused on the business case of why sustainability is critical to the long-term success of organizations and how it can spur innovation. His most recent work has been in the areas of textiles, metal components, and sustainable production processes.