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Improving your product’s carbon footprint through supplier selection

As nations and corporations inch ever closer to their deadlines for net zero carbon emissions, identifying opportunities for mitigating environmental impact becomes ever more challenging and crucial. For the medical device industry, the path to sustainability can seem like a minefield of not knowing whether an optimisation effort will yield any noticeable improvements, or whether major greenhouse gas emissions hotspots are going unchecked. The guiding principles behind Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) stands proud as a way to chart a course through these challenging waters.

LCA Framework

The ISO 14040:2006 standards are a widely adopted set of principles and framework for understanding the environmental impacts of products and services. While we typically use it to guide sustainable medical device design optimisation, its application can be far more comprehensive.

On a normal day in my office at home, while running LCA studies you’ll usually find me in a corner ruminating over material datasheets of sustainable materials, or benchmarking different concepts for their carbon footprint. Occasionally, something a little different is in order – something that feels much like booking a holiday, but without the holiday – transportation carbon footprint analysis!

You may be wondering why a medical device engineer such as myself is involved in such an analysis. I often wonder that too. As a medical device development consultancy, taking a product from concept to production is very much our usual fare. As such, we’re regularly required to select and recommend manufacturing suppliers for our range of development projects. Normally, we would base these recommendations on three critical factors: quality, cost and lead time. This always requires a careful balance, as evaluating manufacturers on a level playing field is challenging enough when their service offerings and strengths are usually not directly comparable. Introducing environmental management into this delicate art is something we could not risk outsourcing to a third party.

LCA is a tool we have been familiar with from a manufacturing point of view for some time, so it made sense to extend the scope to include transportation as well, as part of our sustainability analysis.

Goal & scope definition

Extensive journeys from far flung lands, passing over mountains by lorry, sailing across the Atlantic by ship, soaring through the sky by plane. The journey of assembled devices from their manufacturing locations to their distribution centres is an exciting one.

Picture a crisp morning in Bern, Switzerland. Four boxes of pMDI inhalers have just had their electronic sensing modules, inclusive of Bluetooth capability, fitted. Their aluminium canisters filled with drug formulation have been pushed into place. They are ready to be sent off to their regional distribution centres.

Journey planner:

Box 1 – Nottingham (UK), Sea freight

Box 2 – Nottingham (UK), Air freight

Box 3 – Raleigh (USA), Sea freight

Box 4 – Raleigh (USA), Air freight

(Land journeys to get to and from seaports and airports are also included where relevant).

The goal with this conceptual analysis is to calculate the carbon footprint associated with transporting a single connected pMDI inhaler from each of these boxes, weighing approximately 55 g. So where do we begin?

Inventory analysis

Time to collect the data. We’re not interested in materials or manufacturing processes here. Instead, we want to determine distance travelled (km) for each of the transportation methods. Quite a range of transportation methods are being used in our example, including lorries (trucks), transoceanic freight ships, as well as intercontinental and regional flights.

By analysing road maps, shipping routes and air freight routes, we can determine the distance travelled for every leg of each inhaler’s journey.

Impact assessment

The table below shows the carbon footprint for transporting a single connected pMDI inhaler with a breakdown for each major leg of the journey. Carbon footprint is calculated as grams of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, CO2-eq (g). Remember, the results are for one inhaler device, weighing approximately 55 g.

From Bern Switzerland to Raleigh, USA

 

The map shows each of the four routes taken, with CO2-eq (g) values for each leg of that journey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, transporting devices by air freight results in significantly higher carbon footprint. More surprising is that transporting devices by sea to Nottingham (UK) and Raleigh (USA) is nearly equivalent. This is largely due to the long drive from Bern to Antwerpen to board the ferry to UK, resulting in 11.7 g of CO2-eq for the 700km journey.

The obvious drawback to shipping parts is the long transit duration. These are delays which usually cannot be accommodated for during product development phases of work, but are perhaps worth more serious consideration when launching a product. A typical breath actuated pMDI inhaler has a manufacturing carbon footprint of 380 g CO2-eq, so by flying it across the Atlantic, you could be more than doubling the carbon footprint up to the distribution centre.

At the very least, this information can be useful for knowing how much to offset your carbon footprint to compensate for the fast delivery times of air freight, which is the trade-off to achieving net zero. Perhaps this information just might help inform strategic decisions when you are selecting supplier locations, to give you the best chance of mitigating emissions from the start. Either way, LCA is a methodology that generates valuable information to guide that decision process and should be something to consider in every product development.

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