Although the impact on a patient’s wellbeing will always take precedence in a healthcare professional’s decision, sustainability is becoming an increasingly pressing issue for consumers, professionals and society itself. So it’s essential to consider the environmental impact of medical products.
A recent survey conducted by Wellspect Healthcare with nurses in the UK has shed light on the perceptions of catheters and their impact on the environment. The survey results revealed that while a significant majority (68%) of nurses were concerned about the environmental impact of intermittent catheters, the majority (83%) also believed that there was little difference in the environmental impact between different types of catheters.
In reality, studies show that the usage of a urinary catheter which is made from more sustainable material, could reduce the user’s carbon footprint by 20kg CO2e annually.
This article will delve into the environmental impact of catheters and why it’s crucial for the healthcare industry to consider the ecological footprint of medical devices
So how do you choose a catheter with lower environmental footprint? And what features are key to making a catheter more sustainable? In this article, Wellspect HealthCare, a market leader in bowel and bladder care, lists the most important aspects to look out for.
As consumers become more knowledgeable about the environmental consequences of their actions, eco-labelling is rising in popularity as a way to signal which products and services align with their sustainability values, offering a clearer path towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle emerge.
In simple terms, eco-labels are marks placed on product packaging that single out products that meet specific environmental performance criteria. The eco-labelling renders the products “environmentally preferable”.
Eco-labels differ between countries. Nowadays, there are close to 500 certified eco-labels around the world, covering everything from food and beverages to personal care and medical products.
Wellspect was awarded the Nordic Swan Ecolabel for its LoFric catheters (including LoFric Elle, LoFric Origo, LoFric Sense, LoFric Hydro-Kit and LoFric Primo) back in 2021. While its catheters happen to be the world’s first eco-labelled catheters, more are bound to come, so keep an eye.
Producing catheters that leave a smaller environmental footprint – without compromising the clinical performance of the product nor the user experience, is table stakes. While polyvinyl chloride (PVC) still represents the primary material of catheters’ tubes, POBE – an abbreviation of polyolefin-based elastomer – is emerging as a more sustainable alternative.
Studies show that catheters made from POBE have 33% lower environmental load when compared to polyurethane. POBE consists of carbon and hydrogen and is free of PVC, plastic softeners and latex. It also combines very good physical characteristics with an exceptionally good environmental performance.
Finding more sustainable raw material sources to produce medical plastic devices, including catheters, can also be a game changer. By replacing fossil raw materials with bio-based raw materials, Wellspect managed to cut the carbon footprint of the plastic in one of its products, the Elle catheter, with 55%, compared to the original product.
The company is using a mass balance approach to allocate the bio-based raw materials and to ascertain the same medical-grade quality for the plastic. Mass balancing supports a gradual introduction of alternative raw materials by mixing them with and phasing out fossil raw materials.
The material the catheter is made of is typically listed on the product packaging.
Wrapping and packaging
The size and origin of the material used for the packaging of catheters (paper, cardboard and plastic) go a long way to break or enhance the environmental performance of a product. The customer boxes containing the catheters can be made of fully or partially recyclable material. Ideally, the packaging material should also be recyclable.
The design of packaging labels can have an impact as well. Wellspect highlights for instance in its 2021 Sustainability Report how redesigning labels, reduced the CO2e generated from scrap with 7.5 tons, in a single year, at the supplier’s plant. You can also read the 2022 sustainability report here.
Finally, the packaging material should ideally be certified to showcase it is generated with responsible forestry management. The FSC is the most common certification to this end. FSC is an abbreviation of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is a global certification system covering more than 200 million hectares of forest. Another symbol to check for is the recycle symbol which informs you whether a product packaging is partially or fully recyclable. Wellspect’s full range of catheters’ packaging are embossed with both.
A catheter’s impact is not limited to what it’s made of but also how it is made. The production process through which the catheter was manufactured is, therefore, equally important. This could relate to the sources of energy it uses in the catheter’s manufacturing process, as well as the type of chemicals.
A new catheter coating process introduced at Wellspect HealthCare has seen to a 35% reduction of water usage and a reduction of half the carbon footprint of the previous coating process. This was made possible by upgrading the process technique and the replacement of a solvent with another, which was fully bio-based and had low environmental impact.
Companies who have truly committed to sustainability are also using a so-called life cycle assessment (LCA). An LCA maps out the environmental aspects and impacts throughout the whole life cycle of a product, from the sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing to distribution and eventually end of product life.
With every part of the health system looking to reduce its environmental impact, innovation in sustainable materials and production will soon become a prerequisite. Don’t fall behind. Start thinking green.