The healthcare sector needs to move away from unnecessary single-use products and toxic chemicals and become a torchbearer for sustainable supply chains. Its scale and huge purchasing power mean that it is ideally placed to push for reusable, non-toxic solutions that save natural resources, reduce waste and are better for patients, budgets and the planet.
The circular economy is a model of production and consumption that strives to maintain the usability of existing materials and manufactured products as long as possible typically through sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, and refurbishing. Within a circular economy, waste is reduced to a minimum. When products can no longer be used or repaired, materials are kept within the economy wherever possible through recycling - disposal is the last resort. Currently, a “take>make>use>dispose” approach is still the most common practice, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources recovered for reuse.
With 2.8 million hospital beds and 12,990 hospitals, the European healthcare sector is a major purchaser of goods and services. In the process of treating patients, the healthcare sector consumes an enormous amount of energy and water, building materials, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices - generating waste and polluting the environment.
Increasingly reliant on single use disposable products the sector is also more vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. Urgent action is therefore needed to accelerate the transition of healthcare towards a circular economy, where the supply chain is more sustainable, products last longer, and the waste hierarchy is properly respected.
Expanding the circularity of products and materials in the healthcare sector requires a green chemistry approach. Harmful chemicals can be found in a wide range of products used in healthcare settings, including disinfectants, medical devices, furniture, electronic equipment, solvents, and pharmaceuticals. Replacing substances of very high concern with safer alternatives will not only ensure higher safety for patients and healthcare staff but will also support greater circularity and sustainability through the increased use of non-toxic reusable and recyclable materials. High-priority chemicals include:
- Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs)
- Carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction (CMRs)
- PVC (Vinyl plastic) and phthalates
- Biocides / pesticides
Our circular healthcare programme supports this system transformation by:
- Investigating both the barriers to and enablers of introducing circularity into healthcare settings.
- Supporting health systems’ reduction strategies that shift production and consumption behaviours (e.g. cutting the use of unnecessary plastics) as well as pilot projects, awareness-raising activities and training.
- Stimulating markets for climate-neutral, socially responsible, and circular products and services by incorporating social, environmental, and health considerations into procurement criteria as well as creating a dialogue with stakeholders from the sector’s supply chain.
- Advocating for a policy framework that can enable such transformation, including regulatory measures aimed at phasing out hazardous substances already at the product design phase.