The Quest for Sustainability


I don’t eat meat every day of the week, but when I do buy meat, I check to see where it originated. When it is local in origin, I am more likely to buy it. I avoid going to the greengrocer for produce during January. If I find salsify, I won’t buy it outside of salsify season. I spend more money on my jeans than I used to, as I now buy a local brand. My point in sharing my shopping habits is simple: I try to think before I buy, and I try to be conscious about what effect my purchase has on the environment when it is possible.

When I visit MDMs or pharmaceutical companies (because that is what I do!), a key topic on the 2020 agenda is sustainability. This has changed significantly compared to just a couple of years ago. At the beginning of my career, around 12 years ago, the main topic of discussion was patient safety and how the packaging material would add to the functionality of the device. After a while, some focus shifted towards cost competitiveness. I still believe that patient safety remains topic number one, which is a good thing.


Sustainability. What does that mean as it joins the conversation in earnest? There could be so many implications. Is it about reducing your footprint by making your packaging smaller? But what happens when your seals pop open because of increased stress? I don’t think we’d like to risk an unsterile medical device or syringe because of open packaging.

Is it about setting up a recycling program for packaging material, once it has been used? This would mean every single pouch must be split into two pieces, one piece of top web (e.g., Tyvek®) and one piece of film. Two bins in every surgical suite for waste. It would also mean taking the time to physically split these used pouches when a patient is waiting on the operating table. Do nurses have time to do this? And what if the pouch is coated? What about traces of blood or human tissue on those pouches?

Is it about reducing your transportation footprint? By using more breathable material, it will be easier to stick individual packs inside a box. More individual packs in one box and more products on one pallet mean less transportation footprint. Good for cost reduction as well as for our globe. 

Is it about your sterilization cycle? By making it shorter, you use fewer resources, which has a positive impact on the environment. Is it considering using other methods, with less impact on the environment as some of the current ones?

Is it about reducing your in-process waste? Some of the companies I visit have ambitious projects in place to achieve this. I fully support those initiatives, but at the same time, I realize that wide adoption will take a whole new approach on the part of everyone involved. Changing mindset can be challenging, and it requires commitment (DuPont’s 2030 sustainability goals).

It could be all the above, it could be just ‘greenwashing’ to look good as a company, and it could be everything in between. What I know for sure and what makes me happy is this: sustainability is on the agenda of medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies, and that is a really good thing for the industry to rally around. It’s an opportunity for us all to get creative!

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