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Leveraging a circular economy to improve the industry's supply chain

Plastics are an essential component of countless medical devices, from syringes to catheters to prosthetic limbs. Mesbah Sabur, founder of Circularise, discusses the plastics industry’s impact on how the environment has become too extreme to ignore. 

× The increasing demand for plastics in health care is also putting tremendous pressure on supply chains to maximise efficiency and profitability. For these reasons, manufacturers of medical plastics are now looking to adopt circular systems in order to improve performance while simultaneously minimising waste and pollution.

Circular economies maximise the lifespan of raw materials by continuously recycling used materials to make new products. In the plastics industry, circularity would also mean using raw materials that are easier to recycle and designing products that provide greater sustainability.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for introducing a circular economy into the creation and sale of a plastic-containing device is the number of parties involved, including suppliers, manufacturers, vendors, and health care providers. These separate entities must ultimately work together to ensure that each step of the supply chain contributes to recycling and re-use.

A circular economy Circularity gives businesses multiple ways to save money and increase profitability. Instead of consistently purchasing new materials to make new products, businesses can theoretically purchase a material once and re-use it to make several products. Every material you purchase becomes more profitable when it’s used over and over again. 

Similarly, the use of increasingly durable and recyclable materials can lower operational costs by reducing the presence of waste requiring disposal. Under a traditional model, businesses must not only pay disposal facilities to get rid of their waste but also transport their waste to these facilities themselves.

When recycled materials continuously return to producers, they’re much less likely to run out of a certain material. This makes it much easier to meet sudden surges in demand that might otherwise cause you to overspend on excessive quantities of materials and diminish profitability. Circularity additionally saves you from having to rely on a limited group of suppliers – if not a single supplier – to replenish your inventory. 

Circularity creates a more collaborative culture among supply chain partners. A circular model unifies partners around a common goal of increasing and maintaining sustainability. For example, under a circular model, suppliers must source increasingly sustainable raw materials so producers can make sustainable plastic products. When supply chain partners share the same priorities, they coordinate more frequently and can develop collective strategies in which everyone does their part to meet demand.

Visibility and oversight The first step towards introducing a circular system is establishing visibility over the entire lifecycle of a plastic product, from the gathering of raw materials to its disposal from the consumer. You can’t implement a solution if you don’t understand what’s causing the problem, and visibility allows businesses to identify the specific steps of the supply chain process that need to be changed to improve sustainability. Which materials and processes are generating the most waste? What kind of new initiatives are required by each supply chain party? Visibility gives businesses more control over the supply chain process, allowing them to optimise each stage for maximum efficiency and sustainability.

To that end, visibility also enables manufacturers to identify inefficiencies that may be compromising profitability. Should a delay in production arise, the manufacturer can quickly find the source of the delay and apply an appropriate solution before the issue becomes exacerbated and puts the entire supply chain in jeopardy.

Supply chain traceability Operating a circular model requires both visibility and traceability, which go hand-in-hand. The main difference is that traceability requires hard data to document a product’s lifecycle. For example, when a supplier purchases a certain raw material, all other supply chain parties should be able to see exactly where the material was purchased to verify its sustainability. 

Likewise, when recycled materials are re-purposed, all parties should be able to see exactly which materials were used, where the materials came from, when the new product was made, and even which health care organisation eventually purchased this new product.

In other words, traceability allows businesses to prove that their products are indeed as sustainable as their labels denote. Without this information, vendors would have no way to assure health care organisations that they are purchasing sustainable products and contributing to a healthier environment.

Technology to achieve traceability already exists. However, complete traceability requires data sharing from all supply chain parties, some of which may be reluctant to reveal this information to their partners. That’s why circularity only becomes possible when supply chain partners trust each other and accept their responsibility for each other’s success. Under this collaborative and unified culture, supply chain partners can capitalise on the myriad opportunities to improve performance that come from open data sharing.

Final thoughts The adoption of a circular economy model can gradually remove barriers to operational efficiency as well as profitability and sustainability. Since plastics have historically been associated with a particularly large amount of pollution, an industry-wide transition towards circularity can have a real impact on the environment and make the world a safer, healthier place. It’s up to forward-thinking plastics manufacturers to show fellow manufacturers and their supply chain partners that sustainability stands to benefit their bottom line just as much as their reputation for environmental stewardship.

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Publication date: 09/05/2023

Medical Plastics News

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31