Plastics must have a low CO2 value and at the same time be of very high quality. Nadine Kaufmann, Development Engineer Expert Services, has been working at Ypsomed for over 16 years and is responsible for the various development initiatives involving sustainable plastics. In this interview, she talks about why plastics are the right choice in many cases.
What are your tasks at Ypsomed?
I am responsible for drawing up life cycle assessments and for selecting sustainable plastics. In addition, I am responsible for our eco-design guidelines for sustainable product development and work on other sustainability projects.
Plastics are coming under increasing criticism in terms of sustainability, and pressure is mounting to replace them with alternative materials. What fascinates you about plastics?
The criticism of plastics comes primarily from the large and highly visible amounts of waste. However, if plastics are properly disposed of or recycled, they are a more environment-friendly alternative for many applications when compared to other materials. For example, a PET bottle for beverages is more environment-friendly than a glass bottle in terms of its overall carbon footprint, because the glass bottle is heavier to transport and glass requires very high temperatures to melt down for recycling.
Substitution with paper or cardboard is not possible in many cases as the necessary functions of the packaging could then no longer be guaranteed. In addition, plastics are now available which are made from renewable sources or recycled materials rather than crude oil, making them more sustainable.
Why are plastics so important for safe and easy selfcare?
Our devices should be safe and easy to use for patients, and as economical as possible for the healthcare system. In order to protect the environment, the devices should also be small and lightweight so that they require little energy during transport and refrigerated storage. Plastic is an extremely versatile material which is ideal for medical technology, enabling us to manufacture the complex components for our devices cost-effectively as well as with high precision and quality. We would not even be able to build our injection devices without plastic.
What are the requirements for plastic?
The plastics must be easy to process and, depending on the component, exhibit special properties, e.g. good friction, high stiffness, impact strength or good printability. The plastics must comply with all regulatory requirements for medical technology and chemical substances. We choose the most sustainable plastics and make sure that the materials and our devices can be recycled effectively.
Another important point is the long-term supply security for a material, as material changes for a marketed medical device are very time-consuming and involve extensive testing.
Where is the future heading for plastics?
Most major manufacturers already offer plastics made from alternative sources such as waste oil and biogas. Currently, there is also substantial investment in chemical recycling plants, where plastic mixtures can be recycled in part. In this process, plastic approved for medical use can be produced again, which we could then use again. At the moment, however, these plants are not yet very environment-friendly as chemical recycling requires a great deal of energy. Research is also currently being conducted into how CO2 could be extracted directly from the air, which in turn could be used to produce plastics.
Where do you see the future of packaging for our devices, what challenges and changes can we expect here?
Our ambitions in the area of packaging are: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Generally speaking, we try to reduce packaging materials and use alternative materials where appropriate and to close material cycles. For instance, our packaging specialists pay attention to packing the devices as tightly as possible, thus saving on material as well as on transport and storage space.
We also check with our pharmaceutical customers to see if they can return the packaging so that we can reuse it again. In our quest for more sustainable options, we are also constantly experimenting with completely new materials for packaging.
What is your vision in terms of our society’s big healthcare challenges from a sustainability perspective?
Generally, the healthcare sector generates large amounts of waste, especially in hospitals. This should change in the future, although a certain volume of waste is probably unavoidable for reasons of hygiene. However, self-injection at home with Ypsomed devices can help to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of a treatment.
Especially in the case of chronic complaints, it makes sense to use the injection devices for several injections and to replace and incinerate only those parts that are contaminated. Reusable components which are hygienically safe could significantly reduce plastic consumption per injection.
As a result of our internal eco-design processes, we are moving in this direction, and are an important step closer to our net zero targets. Close cooperation with all partners across the value chain is essential, which is what we are doing in the Alliance-to-Zero, an industry association with the goal of aligning all suppliers to net zero in the value chain up to the pharmaceutical company level. But close coordination with our customers and suppliers is also important. Promoting circular economy is a major challenge for a company like ours in the field of medical technology and self-medication - but we embrace it with great motivation.