Sustainability in focus28 December 2023
When it comes to health, we’re often more willing to accept the environmental impact associated with manufacturing the medical devices we need. But in a world in which sustainability is growing ever more important, contract manufacturers need to demonstrate a level of commitment to reducing their impact on the environment. Monica Karpinski speaks to Rory O’Keeffe, commercial director, Europlaz, and Daniele Fazio, vice-president of business development, Flex, to learn how their employers are improving their sustainability credentials, and how doing so can give them an advantage in the market.
In September 2021, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) gave its suppliers a deadline of April 2027 to publicly report both their greenhouse gas emissions and plans for reducing their carbon footprint. Since most NHS emissions come from the supply chain (62%), the move has intensified the spotlight on sustainability for contract manufacturers. From making greener materials choices to more mindful product design, there’s a lot manufacturers can do to reduce their environmental impact. But since any changes to product design requires adhesion with strict regulations, navigating them can lead to more cost in time and money.
That said, as well as being kinder to the climate, the benefits of being more environmentally friendly can certainly outweigh the costs in a market that values sustainability. Contract manufacturers can stand out by reducing their emissions, while being more energy efficient means a lower utility bill. The production, transportation and disposal of medical products accounts for 71% of all healthcare emissions globally, as reported by non-profit organisation Healthcare Without Harm; in 2019, NHS supply chain emissions were equivalent to those from driving 39.7 billion miles in a gasoline powered car. Now is the time for manufacturers to take sustainability seriously – and some are already making strides on this front.
For medical device manufacturers Europlaz, revising its processes to be more resource efficient has led to significant energy savings. “Our key CO2 contributor and energy usage is actually our injection moulding for some of our processes,” says commercial director Rory O’Keeffe. The company has 16 injection moulding machines, ranging from a ten to 300-tonne (t) press. By upgrading these machines from hydraulic to electric models, energy intensity has reduced by around 30–60% per unit. With 12 machines now electric, there are plans on the horizon to upgrade the remaining four. While energy savings may vary between manufacturers and the parameters of their moulding cycles, O’Keeffe says there are big gains to be made by opting for more efficient machinery: “Even if you’re getting 30% [energy reduction], it’s a big hit for contract manufacturers.” When you consider that over half of the global healthcare industry’s climate footprint comes from energy use, this has a notable environmental impact, too. Europlaz is also incorporating more sustainable sources of energy, rather than relying on fossil fuels. “We’ve got 528 solar panels here,” O’Keeffe explains. “In July, they were generating 60% of our overall energy consumption.” This, he adds, caused a carbon offset of 3.263t, the equivalent effect of 57 trees.
Global supply chain and healthcare manufacturing solutions provider Flex is also investing in renewable energy sources. By 2030, the company has committed to reducing both Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 50%, which includes emissions directly generated by its facilities – such as using fuel to power equipment – and those generated indirectly via its activities from energy it has purchased. In 2018, Flex implemented more than 200 energy-saving projects, including switching to more efficient heating, ventilation and cooling systems, and replacing lighting installations with LEDs. The changes have accounted for a reduction of more than 41,000t in carbon emissions. Across the company’s EMEA sites, 20% currently use energy from renewable providers, while three more solar projects are due to be installed around the world this year.
In 2020, over 32 billion pounds of healthcare plastics were produced globally. Plastic is used widely in healthcare manufacturing for good reason. It’s durable, versatile and cost-effective – especially for mass production, says Flex’s vice-president of business development, Daniele Fazio. But plastics also have a significant carbon footprint and often end up in landfill as single-use or discarded devices. “The biggest issue with plastics is biodegradability,” says Fazio. “But we have to look at the CO2 emissions as well, and not all plastic materials are the same.” To reduce this impact, the most straightforward solution for manufacturers is to use less plastic, Fazio explains. However, you could also use plastics made from resins that generate less emissions, materials that are fully or partially recycled or bio-based materials – those made from an organic fossil fuel alternative like wood or plants. For example, the plastic acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) generates about half of the carbon emissions that polycarbonate (PC) does, yet it has comparable mechanical properties. Using recycled materials generates fewer emissions and waste than creating a device from scratch.
To use biomaterials, they must have an equivalent mechanical robustness to the plastics they aim to replace. Flex is currently investigating the suitability of various biomaterials, in one test, a certain ‘green’ material performed just as well as a standard resin (PC) in terms of mouldability and mechanical resistance and could be used with the same tools and moulding parameters. But making the switch to greener materials can come with challenges. “If you’re adopting bioplastics, they’re going to be more expensive,” says O’Keeffe. Plus, new materials must meet regulatory criteria for safety and performance, which can extend your development cycle and workload. “It is a bit of a barrier...But ultimately, these are weighed up against the long-term benefits,” O’Keeffe adds. “It’s a completely novel characteristic against competitors and is actually doing environmental good…I think the benefits outweigh the risks.” Europlaz is currently working to include more biomaterials into its products, including a neonatal flow sensor that will be manufactured using a biopolymer.
Designing for the environment
How a product is designed influences how long it lasts. Whether it can be recycled and how much energy is needed to make it all contribute to its environmental impact. To ensure a device is as sustainable as possible, manufacturers may choose to follow the design for the environment (DfE) framework. This is where the potential environmental impact of a product is investigated before it’s made, so the design can be revised to reduce these effects. Flex applies DfE by assessing the lifecycle of a product – analysing parameters such as CO2 emissions, energy consumption and the percentage of material that can be recovered once it’s ready to be disposed of – and designing for reuse, repair, and recycling. For Fazio, this means starting at a product’s endpoint and working backwards: “You need to define, from the user requirements…how this product will be disposed of, recycled, reused or refurbished.” “This will drive the design of the product. It’s looking at the product development process the other way around,” he explains. Fazio gives the example of a product you’re hoping to repair or remanufacture, highlighting that in order to do so, it must be easy to disassemble.
Gains don’t always have to be hard to come by either, as O’Keefe highlights the benefits of looking critically at how things are done now, even down to the smallest details, to find easy wins. “We had a simple impact on one of our own product ranges, where we realised that the height we could achieve on the pallets and through sterilisation could be increased by a third. And we could fit more into the cartons by reducing the pouch size by 40%,” he says. Europlaz has also reduced the amount of material used in packaging by swapping an inner and outer carton for just one double-strength carton. “Packaging and logistics efficiencies is an area where I think there’s easy wins to be had in our industry,” says O’Keeffe. “People focus, understandably, on the main product and less so on the packaging…And actually when you’re looking at hundreds of thousands [of units] there’s some serious environmental benefits to be had.”
The triple bottom line
Looking back at the journey Flex has been on to lessen its environmental impact, Fabio has seen the importance of ESG grow not just for his employer, but for the industry as a whole. “I think we are at the beginning of a necessary and exciting journey,” he says. “There is a growing awareness that sustainability is part of the ESG goals of many enterprises. There is a competitive advantage, but also sentiment that this is not an option anymore.”
As end users and OEMs increasingly value sustainability, they may well prefer to work with manufacturers who have less of a climate footprint. For example, being an early adopter of biomaterials can set you apart, says O’Keeffe. Plus, with the NHS deadline on the horizon, operating sustainably may one day become a requirement to stay in business, rather than a nice to have – so those already working in this way may get ahead. And while sustainability is great for the planet, manufacturers should note that using fewer resources can be a good thing for their balance sheet, too. “This is a win-win,” says O’Keeffe. “The environmental benefits are so clear. But what people aren’t realising is that it’s that triple bottom line: it does make business sense as well.”