Cambridge University NHS Hospitals, RENOLIT SE & The Alliance to End Plastic Waste
Cutting plastic waste to reduce carbon emissions on the way to net zero
The NHS in England aspires to become the world’s first net zero national health service. Globally, there is a long way to go to achieve this ambition as, pre-pandemic, the NHS created approximately 130,000 tonnes of plastic waste annually, with only 5 per cent of it being recovered.
NHS staff are passionate about meeting the net zero target but there is a knowledge gap of how to achieve this. More information was needed about what types of waste were causing the most damage and where the waste was going. To obtain this information, the NHS teamed up with plastics manufacturer, RENOLIT SE and the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW), to co-fund a joint study. RENOLIT SE is a specialised plastic converter with a specific mission to improve circularity in the plastics industry and is working actively within the value chain to reduce waste.
To deliver tangible, practical advice, our team worked with over 40 organisations, including the AEPW, RENOLIT SE and the NHS, through several ideation sessions to drive collaborative thinking and viable solutions. These were collated into a roadmap for rethinking product design, adopting innovative waste management technologies, and putting policies into practice.
Looking at the top 200 items used in a clinical setting, it was calculated it was possible to annually prevent 16,500 tonnes of plastic from being wasted. Extrapolated to a national scale, this would divert 85,000 tonnes, or nearly 7,000 double-decker buses full, of material into recycling – cutting CO₂ emissions by up to 235,000 tonnes a year. And better still, through recovery programmes, this could unlock an excess of £40 million a year of net new sources of revenue.
The NHS teams working towards this goal now have the right information to start making the changes in their journey to achieving net zero.
- Provided information on the volume and type of plastic within the top 200 items, including gloves, packaging and PPE, syringes, peel packs, procured by the NHS that result in plastic waste
- Facilitated a consortium of expert organisations who collaborated successfully to share ideas how the NHS can reduce its plastics footprint
- Designed a practical roadmap scalable to the wider NHS to prevent almost one quarter mega tonnes of CO₂ emissions and generate up to £45 million a year in cost savings
Aiming high to get to net zero
NHS England aims to be the world’s first net zero national health service. For the emissions they control directly, they want to reach net zero by 2040, aiming for an 80 per cent reduction by 2028 to 2032. And for the emissions they can influence, they want to reach net zero by 2045, aiming for an 80 per cent reduction by 2036 to 2039.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS generated around 600,000 tonnes of waste every year, and plastic contributes between 20 and 40 per cent of that. These amounts are expected to have grown significantly post-pandemic. It’s estimated that 95 per cent of the plastic isn’t recovered, with some incinerated because of the potential for contamination, producing CO₂ emissions and other noxious fumes that affect our health. Here was a huge opportunity for the NHS to cut plastic waste and have an enormous impact on its net zero targets.
Until now, there was no NHS-wide plan for cutting carbon emissions by reducing plastic waste. There’d been piecemeal research into how to make individual plastic items more ‘circular’ – in other words, whether the item or its ingredients could be recycled rather than disposed of. The Cambridge and Essex NHS hospitals recognised it would take a more holistic approach and outside expertise to have a real impact on achieving net zero targets. Enlisting our capabilities enabled them to kick-start a bigger system-wide drive to minimise the amount of plastic being used and disposed of in an environmentally-damaging way. Knowing of our expertise in both health and sustainability, they invited us to join their team.
Bringing a powerful team together
To achieve this mission required a bespoke and diverse team from across the value chain. The result was a consortium of organisations with specific expertise to undertake this ambitious project. Led by the NHS, circular plastics experts RENOLIT SE and our team, we also enlisted the help of the AEPW, PVC and circular economy specialists Axion.
Creative destruction – breaking down the plastic to find new solutions
The aim was to take the percentage of plastics currently recovered in some way from 5 per cent to 55 per cent – a huge opportunity. To achieve this, first the team identified 200 items the two hospitals were using that resulted in plastic waste. Then, alongside experts from the consortium, the team collected the items, analysed the contents and ingredients, and mapped their disposal methods. The items included gloves, pill packaging and PPE, for example. With this analysis done, exploration into alternative ingredients and/or options for recycling the materials could begin. In total, this research revealed both hospitals could save 16,500 tonnes of plastic going to waste a year.
Scaling up the results of the initial research, suggests NHS England could divert 85,000 tonnes of material into recycling. Our analysis suggests this would cut CO₂ emissions by up to 235,000 tonnes a year.
Using NHS-wide data to plot the path to zero
With so much to be gained in terms of carbon reduction – and commercially – the consortium decided to consult more widely and design a plan for making the recommendations a reality. Facilitating these stakeholders through a series of carefully planned workshops allowed a stream of ideas to come forward.
Armed with their input and our initial evidence, the members of the consortium collaborated to design a six-year roadmap. It specifies re-thinking and re-designing the system in the short term, enhancing NHS infrastructure in the medium term and activating supply chain innovation in the longer term. Ideas covered included how to rethink product design, adopt innovative waste management technologies, and put realistic and practical policies into practice.
Another factor forming the analysis was the commercial value in the material that could be recycled. It was discovered that by recovering and recycling just the top 200 procured items could be worth more than £9 million to the two hospitals. The 85,000 tonnes NHS England could recycle, could be worth up to five times as much – generating £40 million a year, excluding the costs to realise it.
Twin benefits – increased sustainability, healthier lives
As a result, these NHS hospitals now have an end-to-end view of the journey plastics make through their clinical activities – and their impact on carbon emissions. They have a practical roadmap for reducing plastic waste which will play a significant role in their drive towards net zero. What’s more, cleaner air results in better health. Cutting carbon emissions not only lessens the impact of climate change, it delivers on the NHS’s mission to enable people to live healthier lives.