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Reducing plastic waste on the road to Net Zero

The UK’s plastic packaging tax finally rolled into action on 1st April 2022. Manufacturers and importers of plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic content will now be taxed at a rate of £200 per metric tonne.

There are exemptions, but the pharmaceutical industry, the medical devices sector and healthcare in general need to take notice.

The immediate packaging of licensed human medicines is exempt from the tax, but other medical packaging, for example, the packaging used for medical devices, will be included.

According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), "Reducing waste from packaging is one of the biggest challenges our industry faces.” ABPI members are working to overcome the challenge by working with regulators and governments, and investing in research and new technologies.

By the end of this year, ABPI member Novo Nordisk will have recycled more than one million UK injector pens following the launch of its pilot recycling scheme, PenCycle.

An estimated 23 million medical pens like this end up in landfills or are incinerated in the UK each year. PenCycle began in the north of England and Scotland and is being rolled out nationally this year. Patients are asked to return their used pens, which are then sent to a recycling facility in Denmark and put to completely new use as plastic furniture.

Italian pharmaceutical company Chiesi, also an ABPI member, is running a 12-month pilot scheme supported by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust and Leicestershire and Rutland Local Pharmaceutical Committee, to recycle plastic inhalers. Empty inhalers are returned by patients and the recyclable components are recovered. Non-recyclable materials are combusted for energy generation. Nearly 7,000 inhalers were recycled in the first six months of the scheme.

The NHS is acutely aware of its carbon footprint, with its ambitious plan to become the world’s first net zero national health service. In the words of Richard Hixson, clinical lead for sustainability, County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust: “First do no harm is no longer the patient, it’s the planet.”

The NHS has a Plastics Reduction Pledge to which 145 trusts have signed up. The Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust alone removed 200,000 single-use plastic items from its waste stream in 2019–20, saving four tonnes of waste per year and over £12,000 a year in packaging, delivery and disposal costs.

COVID-19 and the unprecedented demand for PPE around the world saw a dramatic spike in plastics use.

“The NHS has rightly used exceptionally large volumes of PPE to maintain service delivery and sustain high-quality care. However, there are growing concerns about the environmental impact this has had, and may continue to have, due to increases in production and disposal of single-use items, which are predominately made from plastics,” wrote the authors of the NHS report Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service. “The full impact of this on the NHS’ emissions is not yet fully known.”

Across the whole of the NHS, the service is looking at innovations that could help switch from disposables to reusable equipment and the use of technologies to avoid plastics in medicine supply. The technologies don’t need to be cutting edge; reorganising nephrology services in the UK reportedly saved the NHS an estimated 11 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (ktCO2e).

The NHS has identified three ways it can reduce carbon emissions from its supply chain: by making more efficient use of supplies; by using low-carbon substitutions and product innovation; and by ensuring that its suppliers are decarbonising their own processes. To this end, the NHS estimates that a 10% reduction in clinical single-use plastics in the short term will eventually save a total of 224 ktCO2e, and a move to bio-based polymers could produce savings of 498 ktCO2e in the future.

The International Leadership Group for a Net Zero NHS; which includes Astra Zeneca, GSK, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic, published an open letter in the BMJ last November to the 80, 000 global suppliers that make up the NHS supply chain, urging them to act now and commit to working with the NHS to decarbonise their operations by 2045 at the latest.

A copy of the letter can be read here

https://www.bmj.com/content/375/bmj.n2425/rr-4

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