We all agree it’s the moral thing to do, right? The world needs to become more sustainable. We can’t keep throwing away more and more each year. But what about those products that directly impact our health, our wellbeing, our life… surely, they don’t count, do they?

Well I think they do. In an ideal world everything we use would originate from sustainable sources. A circular supply chain, reusing what we throw away, could see to that. The trouble with medical devices is the many barriers to reducing environmental impact. I’ll come to those barriers in a moment, but I want to be clear from the start. With a bold, comprehensive response that begins at the concept stage and ends with the user of the device, it is possible to challenge conventional thinking and change for the better.

Read Henry Blower's blog on the need to improve inhaler sustainability

So, what is it we need to overcome? Within a highly regulated industry, medical drug delivery devices have to provide a safe and efficient means of providing the user with their prescribed medicine. They must be robust and operate as intended throughout their life. They need to provide simple, intuitive interfaces to enable users to use them with minimal training.

Material choices are limited to approved ‘medical grade’ options that have been rigorously tested for suitability to things like biocompatibility with the drug contacting surfaces or patient, sterility, and zero chemical leaching. In these instances, a recycled route is not an option. A reduced list becomes the first and only choice for designers. Equally, these medical devices need to fulfil all these requirements at minimum cost, in price sensitive markets.

Pushing the boundaries

Despite the barriers, the sustainability of drug delivery devices can and should be improved. The answer is to challenge design decisions throughout the development process. Through design, through architectural decisions, through material choice. By pushing the boundaries of development, innovative materials and technology. We should challenge the business models that place these devices into the market and challenge users to rethink how they interact with their device, so it is not simply thrown away.

Product developers should be considering environmental impact at all stages of device development. In this way, sustainability sits alongside other criteria to drive innovation. Optimising size, weight, functionality, driving energy efficient manufacturing methods, pushing forward part design and maximising device life. Talking about sustainability raises awareness. Development processes incorporating tools like Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) enable engineers to compare designs and material choices and make informed decisions early in the development journey. Ultimately, this benefits the device design and cost of goods (COGS).

Although material choices for drug contacting parts are limited, we could look for new biomaterials for non-critical components like outer caseworks. We could maximise the life of each individual device to get as much use out of each as possible. We should look beyond the device – at packaging, IFU’s, shipping containers, manufacturing locations, reducing the impact on the planet as well as the overall COGS of the device.

Most designs are already doing this to minimise cost, optimise manufacture and comply with RoHS  (Restrictions of Hazardous Substances) and WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directives. But incorporating sustainability criteria at all levels of the development process will reduce the environmental impact of a design while optimising the design in all other ways. 

Adapting user behaviour

Longer term, design can help users adapt their behaviour. That might be not throwing away the whole device or providing a recycling route for it. It may be possible to rethink the business model for drug delivery devices, turning it from a single sale to returnable approach. Could devices like preventer inhalers become re-loadable, replenished by the user or manufacturer, with old parts designed for maximum life or washed and recycled at end of life? Designs could become modular units which can be cleaned, sterilised and reused. For low use devices like reliever inhalers, designs could become minimal, with as little waste as necessary. 

We should strive for investment into medical grade materials from sustainable sources – be it recycled, bio or other means – to ensure a supply chain with minimal environmental impact. Ideally, that should be a circular chain, which produces, uses and returns now and into the future. In my view, the journey to a sustainable future starts here. Please drop me an email if you'd like to discuss the topic in more detail.

Matt Garwood
Senior Consultant

A senior consultant in our medical technology division, Matt has more than 20 years' experience in product development, with a focus on medical devices and inhalers. As the world becomes more mindful of the need for sustainable lifestyles, Matt is committed to considering that imperative in future developments – as well as helping clients make informed decisions.