4 MIN READ

Choosing sustainability in medical device development

I think it’s fair to say that most areas of our lives are filled with abundant choice. From major life decisions – where to buy a house, or which university to go to – to deciding what to have for dinner, gone are the days of ‘you can have any colour so long as it’s black’.

I’ve recently been making efforts to reduce single-use plastic in my home – a change that’s made me acutely aware of the vast choice we’re accustomed to in our daily lives. Let’s take cosmetics. Within hair care alone you’ve got volumizing, clarifying, nourishing or medicated shampoo. Shampoo for oily, dry, coloured, thin, frizzy, curly or straight hair. The choices seem limitless and it’s left me wondering if it might just be simpler to have no hair at all!

The case is very different when you bring environmental sustainability into the mix. In fact, the choices are minimal when it comes to plastic free shampoo. There are a handful of shampoo bars which do the trick but, if you’re after anything for different hair types, forget it. Most products I’ve grown up with and habitually use do not fit this new parameter, and the hunt for sustainable replacements is a challenge. From toothpaste that leaves me feeling less than fresh, to walking back from the shops with a refillable bottle of laundry liquid in a canvas tote bag – there have been many adjustments I’ve had to make.

As sustainability targets become more prevalent in the medical space, device developers will have to adjust accordingly to meet them. From heavy discussions around hydrofluoroalkane (HFA) gas in pMDI devices, to disposable single-use plastics; there has been a real push by corporations to take sustainability more seriously. Some initiatives are putting aside environmentally unfriendly options, trialling new sustainability driven technologies and processes that will perhaps introduce costs and risks.

These initiatives can take on many forms, for example, choosing more sustainable materials in device development and manufacturing. The old reliable acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), whilst recyclable, unfortunately releases toxic fumes in production and often ends up in landfill.

By designing for devices to be manufactured from bio-based, biodegradable or post-consumer recycled plastics, it may be possible to reduce waste, CO2 emissions, water usage and energy consumption.

By designing for devices to be manufactured from bio-based, biodegradable or post-consumer recycled plastics, it may be possible to reduce waste, CO2 emissions, water usage and energy consumption. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) would then be a valuable exercise in determining how the choices made might affect the environment. It’s no use using a lovely plant-based plastic if it needs to be air freighted halfway round the world to your production site!

Some of these more sustainable plastics have been around a while and, like the shampoo bars, more options are springing up. But there isn’t a lot of choice, especially for medical applications. Meeting sustainability targets will require compromise across the board – not just in device design – but, while a daunting prospect, it is worth the reward. I’ve managed to find a plastic-free toothpaste I like and have never been more attached to a detergent bottle! I hope that we’ll continue progress towards a more sustainable industry, and that those leading the way will find the journey as fulfilling as my personal one at home has been.

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