The healthcare products sector, encom-passing pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers, has got off to a slow start in pursuing sustainability. This is in contrast to other sectors, such as automotive, electronics and consumer goods, where manufacturers have been active in areas such as recycling, lightweighting and the use of bioplastics.
It is clear that regulation and tightening standards are encouraging the spread of sustainability in the medical and pharmaceutical arena, but sustainability is still not a top priority for many device manufacturers. Is this because patient safety dominates product development?
Healthcare is a heavily regulated industry, and the need to gain regulatory approvals prevents medical manufacturers from acting as speedily as those in other sectors. It is not a straightforward matter for an inhaler manufacturer, for example, to recycle used devices. For one thing, there is the problem of contamination, as drug residues and patient tissue may remain in the device.
But although the medical sector has particular issues and stringent regulations, that does not make it a "special case". The automotive industry is another sector where compliance with tough safety regulation is paramount, but it has not deterred car makers from developing lighter, composite body structures that meet crash test requirements just as well as steel components.
Medical device makers are now trying to get to grips with sustainability. It is a complex area, so it is not easy for smaller companies in the sector to develop a strategy. Large pharma companies have compliance departments that can help with their strategy, but even these big groups admit it is difficult to know what to focus on.
Perhaps they can learn from other industries, and see how their sustainability strategies are developing. Don't just do what seems to be green. Is the use of recycled plastics or bioplastics really suitable for the product? The key is to find improvements that are appropriate for the medical devices sector which guarantee safety compliance.