A new proof-of-concept drug-delivery device demonstrates how various medical-grade polycarbonates and blends can simplify sorting and recycling after disposal of biocontaminated pieces. (Credit: Covestro)

In today’s world, many consumers are demanding that brands and corporations become more sustainable and make a dedicated effort to reduce their carbon footprint. This has led companies to show how they are helping the planet by setting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) goals, such as achieving zero-waste, lowering their carbon footprint, and switching to more sustainable, recyclable products. In many industries, such as consumer packaged goods, there are a variety of companies and options, allowing consumers to make a conscious decision to switch to more recyclable or eco-friendly alternatives. So, companies that are not making moves to become more sustainable will likely be at a competitive disadvantage in the future.

But there are some industries, like the healthcare industry, that provide lifesaving solutions, where functionality and quality were believed to outweigh sustainability concerns. Purchase decisions were made based on patient outcome and cost, rather than environmental impact. As the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals already recognize improvement of wellbeing, healthcare companies were already viewed as contributing positively to society.

Every part of the drug-delivery device is custom molded to work together without fasteners, meaning disassembly, sorting, and recycling are simplified. (Credit: Covestro)

However, if we are going to solve the climate crisis and become fully circular, it will require global effort and collaboration across every industry, including healthcare. And the healthcare industry is responding. Many medical and pharmaceutical companies, and even healthcare providers and hospitals, have set sustainability-related targets, such as achieving zero-waste and climate-neutrality, as part of their ESG goals. Hospitals are switching to energy-efficient lighting, sourcing food from local distributors instead of vendors traveling from distant locations to reduce gas emissions and are also converting food waste into compost.

Pharmaceutical companies are looking for ways to reduce carbon emissions during the drug manufacturing process, reusing waste materials when possible, and creating closed-loop systems across the entire value chain.

To achieve these goals, the healthcare industry is rethinking device design and end-of-use with a view to reduce waste through better materials recycling and innovative approaches to reduce overall carbon footprint, such as using non-fossil sourced plastics. More sustainable approaches, while still providing the same functionality and quality, will lie at the heart of the development process. In many cases, the materials previously chosen for medical devices were based on functionality only, and end-of-life disposal and sustainability were not a consideration. But this is changing; designers are now reconsidering design and material choices for medical devices to facilitate recovery, reuse, and reduced carbon footprint.

Increased recyclability is well established in packaging, and, in the past few years, attention is shifting to other areas. The healthcare industry has seen the use of drug-delivery devices grow over a number of years as innovative new drugs administered at home have come to the market. That is why the healthcare industry is rethinking device design and material choices used for drug-delivery devices to reduce medical waste, avoid landfill or incineration, and reduce carbon footprint.

Reducing Medical Waste

Each component plays a specific and significant role in creating a high-functioning and sustainable solution that can reduce medical waste and enhance patient comfort. (Credit: Covestro)

Many medical devices that are used today, including drug-delivery devices, are made from a variety of plastics that are not compatible with one another (if blended as an alloy). This makes it challenging to recycle and recover materials because it requires the materials to be sorted first. And it is very likely that these incompatible materials will become inadvertently mixed together, which limits the recyclability and the value of this waste stream. In order to reduce medical waste, we need to reassess what materials we are using — and use compatible materials — to simplify the recycling process.

At Covestro, for example, we have shown that polycarbonates can be formulated to meet almost any function. This versatility allows us to design devices, such as drug-delivery devices, with all polycarbonate materials. Covestro developed a prototype for drug-delivery devices, which debuted at MD&M West in April 2022, that demonstrates an all-polycarbonate material design approach. It was designed with no added fasteners, which would make it easier to disassemble at the end of life and helps to minimize the sorting of component parts that would be required.

The use of polycarbonates in all components can simplify sorting and recycling. (Credit: Covestro)

The prototype utilizes multiple resins from the Covestro healthcare portfolio: medical low friction Makrolon® polycarbonate, medical glass-filled Makrolon® polycarbonate, medical high flow Makrolon® polycarbonate, and medical Bayblend® PC+ABS. Using polycarbonates in medical devices makes it easier for manufacturers to recycle, recover, and reuse the resins by eliminating resin incompatibility, thus reducing medical waste. Plus, in many cases, polycarbonate-based materials may have higher performance than more commonly used incumbent materials. The device helps to demonstrate that low friction Makrolon® polycarbonates can improve consistency and reduce activation force. Also, with the use of medical glass-filled Makrolon® polycarbonates, we can show how the improved creep resistance can support a longer shelf life.

Lowering Carbon Footprint

The healthcare industry is also looking for ways to reduce carbon footprint to meet climate-neutral goals. When reconsidering the design used to make medical devices, we need to consider materials that are more climate-neutral. The company’s new climate-neutral Makrolon® RE polycarbonate, which we introduced in 2021, is manufactured using renewable electricity as well as raw materials from mass-balanced bio-waste and residues. The new prototype for drug-delivery devices not only reduces medical waste, but it also may help the industry meet lower carbon footprint targets.

The healthcare industry plays an important role in helping society to address climate change and become more sustainable. And we’ve seen the healthcare industry put a greater emphasis on lowering its carbon footprint, designing more sustainable products, and reducing medical waste. However, we understand that the healthcare industry is presented with a unique set of challenges to reaching its ESG goals compared to other industries because functionality and quality are essential to patient safety and saving lives. It will take the collaboration and concerted effort across the entire value chain to achieve environmental goals.

Covestro’s new drug-delivery device prototype is an important demonstration of how the medical industry can become fully circular and sustainable. It is essential that materials suppliers work with their customers, innovating together to redesign products to become more sustainable.

This article was written by Lauren Zetts, Global Head of Healthcare Marketing – Engineering Plastics, Covestro, Pittsburgh, PA. For more information, visit here .