Technological watch

Approaching sustainability in healthcare

Jana Zietzling, head of product management medical, IMCD, explains how the industry should be approaching sustainability.

× Shutterstock

Global health and medicine. Heal the world concept. Doctor, nurse or medical worker in white protective suit with blue sterile rubber gloves holding world globe crystal glass ball in hand.

The healthcare industry is estimated to be one of the biggest CO2 emitters, responsible for ca. 4,4% of total CO2 emissions globally. If it were a country, the healthcare sector would be the 5th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. 

The aim, as well as the priority of applications in medical & healthcare, is to save lives, treat diseases and provide relief from pain. This industry is highly regulated with strict approval processes that avoid any comprise on the safety of human life or efficacy of the medical device. Accordingly, the development times of medical devices and pharmaceutical packaging can take many years, up to almost a decade. This brings further complexity to incorporate sustainability in this industry. 

IMCD launched the Sustainable Solutions Framework, in which experts provide a tool to de-complexify the different approaches to sustainability for the Advanced Material industry by breaking down the sustainable solutions into 8 categories: Biodegradable, CO2 Reduction, Compostable, End-of-Life Enhancement, Recyclability, Renewable Source, Waste Reduction, Weight Reduction. 

For medical & healthcare applications, five categories apply: 

Renewable Resources 

For medical device applications with strict regulatory requirements, a change in material would require recommencement of the time-consuming and costly approval process. Hence, drop-in solutions like polypropylene derived from used cooking oil could be an ideal option. 

Similar to fossil oil, used cooking oil is broken down into its components on a molecular level. Due to this, PP derived from used cooking oil provides the same mechanical properties and maintains the same regulatory compliance as its fossil-based sibling. In order to track the whole supply chain of sustainable feedstock, IMCD is ISCC Plus certified and thus can carry out the mass-balance approach. 


For a product to be collected and recycled, the material selection is essential in the design stage taking also into account the intended use of this product. Choosing a mono-material solution can help to enable the sorting of the products. Especially for healthcare and pharmaceutical packaging, there is a trend towards these considerations, for instance by abandoning metallised plastics in blister or tube packaging and replacing this with PP, PE, COC or Copolyester material solutions. 

While mechanical recycling of plastics involves the re-granulation of material and maintains the molecular structure of the material, these products are not suitable for medical and healthcare applications because they lack medical approvals. During chemical recycling through the pyrolysis process, plastics are split into building blocks at the monomer level and can be used as feedstock to produce, for instance PP and PE. These can be considered as sustainable drop-in solutions for medical and healthcare applications as they offer the same technical specifications and medical compliances as their standard counterparts. 

There is often concern about contamination of disposed products with infectious materials like blood.?As not all plastic products which are disposed in a hospital are contagious, for instance syringe caps, establishing sorting infrastructure in hospitals could be one approach. But from the regulatory point of view, the risk evaluation as well as the corresponding risk classification systems must be addressed first.  

End of life enhancement  

In order to be safely reusable, the medical device must be capable of being appropriately reprocessed to remove contamination of microorganisms. A reprocessing in the medical and healthcare context could be disinfection or sterilisation of the device.  

Waste reduction 

Managing waste is a big challenge for the medical and healthcare industry. In addition to the options of closing the loop by recycling as well as designing medical devices for reusability, the industry also investigates another aspect: 

With the increase of vaccinations and the further developments of parenteral drugs, the usage of PFS (prefilled syringes) is becoming more popular. Traditionally, glass vials were the first choice for providing drug products, but these are usually overfilled to make sure the full dose will be administered to the patient. Prefilled syringes can be made of COC, are easier and faster to handle, reduced in risk and have improved dose control so that they help reduce drug product waste. 

Weight reduction 

Reducing weight can be achieved by reducing the material in use. For instance, certain medical grades of PP, PMMA, or Copolyesters are available, which can be converted into devices with very thin walls due to their improved processability and flowability. At the same time, less energy is consumed, which further decreases the carbon footprint. 

What should we do to build a sustainable future? 

Plastic materials became indispensable in the medical and healthcare industry and are the base for developing and producing medical devices to save and improve patients’ lives. 

It is a highly regulated market segment in which patient safety, hygiene, and infection control play a decisive role. Additional complexity arrives with many players involved in this market often dependent on reimbursement schemes from healthcare insurance companies. This makes it difficult to find a one-fits-all solution in terms of the sustainability approach for medical and healthcare applications. However, one thing is for sure: a stand-alone approach of a single market player will likely not make the difference; it will require joint forces across the industry to achieve a “greener” segment! 

Back to Search Results Tags issue 67 North America issue 23 Latest Issue Featured sustainability IMCD Recycling

Publication date: 01/11/2022

Medical Plastics News


This project has received funding from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 837761.