Creating a circular economy 'essential' to NHS carbon efforts

Published: 31-Mar-2022

New research shows urgent action is needed to tackle NHS carbon emissions

The NHS is being urged to adopt circular economy (CE) practices in order to meet its net zero carbon targets.

New research by the University of Exeter and Philips UK and Ireland reveals the health service and its suppliers will need to systemically adopt CE practices or risk failing to meet the Government’s carbon neutral pledge by the target date of 2040.

The research follows a UK-led COP26 Health Programme and £280m funding package aimed at decarbonising the NHS estate between now and 2025.

The NHS’ Carbon Footprint and Carbon Footprint Plus – which includes the supplier footprint – are currently 6.1 MtCO2e and 24.9MtCO2e per year respectively.

And, significantly, suppliers to the NHS are responsible for 62% of all health sector emissions.

To achieve the target set by NHS Carbon Footprint Plus, the health service must achieve 8% CAGR reductions in carbon emissions between 2020-2036, a rate far higher than the 1% historical average.

Waste not, want not

Mounting waste is also a major issue, with providers in England creating nearly 600,000 tonnes of waste annually at a management cost of £700m per year.

Hospital staff, healthcare workers, waste handlers, patients, and the community at large are more exposed to infection, toxic effects, and injuries as a result.

The research’s co-author, Professor Markus Zils, Professor for Circular Economy and Management Science at the University of Exeter, said: “NHS leaders have outlined their commitments to making health services more sustainable, but the pace of change has to swiftly accelerate.

“Our research has outlined that meeting the NHS’s ambitious net zero targets is only possible with the adoption of circular economy practices.”

Commenting on the role of the NHS supply chain, Professor Zils added: “It is critical that companies and key supply chain partners work with the NHS and wider health system to begin this journey.

“Such a transformation would dramatically enhance the patient experience, improve financial efficiency, and reduce the system’s environmental impact.”

A sustained, collaborative approach

The report features independent interviews with a number of NHS trusts alongside NHS England’s Green Team and presents three case study examples of best practice for applying a circular economy mindset to medical devices, services, and solutions including: the impact of telehealth in paediatric cardiology, the positive outcomes from introducing digital pathology services, and introducing eco-design principles in hospital equipment such as low-helium MRI scanners.

The case studies highlight different types of medical equipment used extensively in the NHS for diagnosis and treatment and illustrate how service delivery can be optimised while reducing carbon use and product and material requirements.

From this research, the report states that to achieve a net zero health system by 2040, stakeholders across government, the NHS, and industry must collaborate to set a new standard for procurement, improve supply chain due diligence, and foster innovation to ensure that a shift to CE practices is sustained.

To prompt action, the report makes 45 recommendations about how this can be achieved across three stakeholder parties – the NHS, suppliers, and regulators. These have been condensed into nine key thematic recommendations, including:

  • The NHS must embrace CE business models, use procurement as a driver of emissions reduction, and become a test bed for CE and green technology
  • Suppliers must move beyond energy efficiency and incremental innovation to systemic innovation, align their products and services to the NHS Evergreen framework, and ensure stringent progress on Scope 1 and 2 emissions
  • Regulators must continually adapt policy and regulation to incentivise and nurse the NHS and its suppliers, fund and provide a cross-industry platform in pre-competitive spaces, and improve certification and the enforcement of CE standards

Mark Leftwich, managing director of Philips UKI, said: “The Government and NHS England are aligned to the net zero agenda and have set ambitious targets achieve it.

“Trusts and suppliers must take urgent action to begin the process of change.

“Philips has been pioneering the transition to a circular economy to drive ambitious climate action and is actively supporting its suppliers and customers to achieve significant reduction of their footprints.

“As the NHS adapts to tackle growing backlogs for diagnosis and treatment, there is an opportunity to modernise models of care and procurement to actively target Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions and enhance patient care.”

He added: “Critically, the research tells us that net zero and circular economy approaches have been treated as two distinct areas of focus within the NHS, government, and supply chains.

“This needs to change.

“There needs to be a unified approach that treats circular economy practices as an answer to tackling the net zero goal and the growing backlog for diagnosis and treatment.

Supporting the NHS

“Philips has long been an advocate for embedding circular economy practices into our own business models, and we are passionate about supporting the NHS to do the same.”

The report features a foreword from Sally Edgington, director of AXREM, the UK trade association representing the interests of suppliers of diagnostic medical imaging, radiotherapy, healthcare IT, and care equipment.

She said: “I am delighted that this research has provided a vital and timely contribution, not only for assessing the scale of the challenge and opportunity, but also providing a clear approach to help the NHS achieve its net zero ambitions.

“The medical device and technology community must play a critical role by furthering the recommendations made in this report, and supporting the NHS to fulfil its mandate for providing quality care, while simultaneously reducing its carbon footprint.

“AXREM shares the viewpoint of Philips that the two are not mutually exclusive.

“The industry must work with the NHS, regulators, HM Government, and suppliers to fulfil this critical and urgent ambition.

“It is our responsibility to embark on this journey, together.

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