More efforts needed to reduce the environmental impact of the medical device industry

The healthcare sector is a large contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, both directly and indirectly through purchased goods and services. Environmentally-extended input-output (EEIO) modelling has shown that healthcare sector emissions contribute between 4 % and 10 % of total greenhouse gas emissions in the USA, Canada, and Australia. Globally, the healthcare sector is responsible for approximately 4.6 % of the global total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2019 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change. In comparison, in 2018, the shipping sector was responsible for around 2.9 % of global emissions.

Evaluating the supply chain

Supply chains make up a significant share of the healthcare sector’s GHG emissions. In the UK, for example, a carbon footprint assessment of the NHS found that 62% of greenhouse gas emissions came from the supply chain, 24% from the direct delivery of care, 10% from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4% from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS.

Source: “Health care's response to climate change: a carbon footprint assessment of the NHS in England,” (accessed September 27, 2022)

Another area of concern besides GHG emissions is the waste generated by single-use plastics and packaging. The non-profit organization Practice Greenhealth estimated that in the US, 25 % of healthcare waste is plastic. Similarly, in the UK, prior to the pandemic, 22.7% of the waste produced by the NHS each day was plastic. The increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly exacerbated this issue. Plastic waste surveys in five European hospitals, conducted by the NGO Healthcare Without Harm (HCWH) Europe as part of its “Towards Plastic-free Healthcare in Europe” project, showed that roughly 47 % of the waste audited was plastic. The waste analysed included non-clinical waste and plastic recycling waste streams. Other plastic waste audits conducted outside of the HCWH project, such as at the OLVG hospital in the Netherlands, have shown that approximately 50 % of total plastic waste by weight was disposable plastic packaging.

Medtech’s response to green demands

Suppliers to hospitals and other healthcare organisations will come under greater scrutiny in the area of sustainability, as green criteria are likely to play an increasingly important role in tenders. Suppliers themselves will need to think about the environmental impacts of their suppliers’ supply chains as they will increasingly be expected to disclose the environmental, social and governance (ESG) risks associated with the business practices of their partners. Looking specifically at the medical device industry, so far, MedTech companies “have been slower than companies in other sectors to respond to the demands of sustainability”, concludes EY’s 2021 Pulse of the Industry report. As devices increasingly incorporate digital and electronic components, issues of waste go beyond single‐use plastics, making it necessary for the Medtech industry to address the sustainability issue of the whole lifecycle of their products, from manufacturing to packaging and recycling.

Over the past six years, awareness of environmental issues has increased, if the number of mentions of sustainability is any indication. Medical Device Network compares environmental sustainability mentions to mentions of other top issues (innovations, deal making, intellectual property, M&A, geopolitics) in company filings in the medical sector. Between 2016 to 2022 the number of mentions of environmental sustainability has increased by over 150 % from 2,336 to 5,928 mentions. However, the number is still low compared to the other top 5 issues.

Source: Global Device Network/GlobalData Filings Database, (accessed October 24, 2022)

The medical device industry is challenged as hospitals and healthcare providers are increasing their sustainability efforts and reviewing their processes to improve their carbon footprint and to reduce their environmental impact. For example, the National Health Service in England was the first public health system to commit to achieving net-zero by 2045, both for its direct emissions and those of its supply chain. In 2018, the Dutch government launched a “Green Deal on Sustainable Healthcare”, which establishes agreements with participating healthcare institutions, government authorities and companies to reduce the healthcare sector’s impact on the environment. Its goals include, for example, a 49% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and socially and environmentally responsible procurement, focussing on the potential to reuse and recycle (circular procurement).

Against this background, it is becoming imperative for medical device companies to evaluate the entire lifecycle of their products, finding ways to lower their environmental impact and making changes where necessary. Medical device companies must respond to green demands and demonstrate their sustainability efforts if they want their business to succeed in the future. Some major players in the industry that have already taken initiatives to tackle sustainability issues are, for example, Royal Philips, Johnson & Johnson and Becton Dickinson:

  • Royal Philips says its “EcoDesign” approach, introduced in 1994, holistically considers all aspects of product development and design. Using life cycle analysis, the approach allows Philips to determine the environmental impact at each stage of a product’s life – from raw material extraction, materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance to disposal or recycling – and ultimately reduce a product’s environmental impact.
  • Within its Health for Humanity Strategy, Johnson & Johnson is partnering with Switzerland’s Lindenhofgruppe in a recycling project, which aims to recover as many high-quality base materials as possible from the company’s disposable medical instruments and return them to the material cycle. Between July and October 2021, more than 2,800 disposable medical instruments with a total weight of 310 kg were collected. Of these, 87 kg of metals such as steel, titanium, aluminium, copper, and chrome steel were recovered. In addition, over 220 kg of plastic were recycled.
  • Becton Dickinson has recently formed the Sustainable Medical Technology Institute (SMTI), which will leverage BD’s expertise across multiple business units to reduce the environmental impact of the company’s product portfolio in three areas. These include the adoption of sustainable product design strategies, the development and deployment of sustainable sterilization technologies, as well as addressing materials of concern (MOC). The SMTI will also address “the use of excess plastics” across its portfolio.

With increasing pressure to act on climate change, we will certainly see more of these green initiatives in the future.

Thip Pruckner
Market Intelligence Expert


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