NHS urged to reduce waste to deliver net-zero ambitions

Historically, the NHS has reduced emissions by just 1% each year, but the level of annual reductions will need to hit 8% if the 2040 net-zero target is to be delivered. New research has been published, revealing how a circular economy approach would help accelerate progress.

NHS urged to reduce waste to deliver net-zero ambitions

Published today (22 March) by the Centre for Circular Economy at Exeter University and by electronics firm Philips UK & Ireland, the report outlines how the majority of the NHS’s emissions are generated by its supply chain and waste management value chain rather than its direct operations.

The supply chain, the report states, accounts for 62% of all NHS emissions. It argues that, with this in mind, the Government would do well to help the NHS better engage with suppliers to “move beyond energy efficiency and incremental innovation to systemic innovation”.

The report recommends that the NHS should implement new requirements for suppliers to measure and reduce their own Scope 3 (indirect) emissions and to showcase circular economy solutions. Requirements could be included on a mandatory basis within procurement contracts; for example, eco-design principles are already detailed as standard in the procurement of equipment including MRI scanners.

This would go beyond current plans for all suppliers with contract values over £5m to have a carbon reduction plan for all emissions by 2027; for all products supplied to the NHS to have a carbon footprint by 2028; and for all suppliers to regularly report progress on cutting emissions from 2030.

On resources, it is also more radical than current commitments to “reduce all packaging used in operations” and to eliminate single-use plastics “where possible”.

The report sets out a four-step plan to transition the NHS to a circular economy model, including a baselining of resource use, improved efficiencies, the use of recycled and second-life items and optimising material productivity.

“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,” said Philips UK & Ireland’s managing director Mark Leftwich

“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. 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 NHS could be supported to implement these changes with changes to regulations, the report argues. It also calls on the government to fund a cross-industry platform in pre-competitive spaces that would be used for researching and implementing innovations that cut emissions and waste.

Predicted benefits

For sustainability professionals, the benefits of the recommendations are clear, in terms of reduced waste and emissions. This will, in turn, cut risks across the NHS value chain and avoid some of the public health issues associated with the climate crisis.

But the report also emphasises the financial benefits. It states that NHS providers in England are currently generating nearly 600,000 tonnes of waste annually, which costs around £700m to manage.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has stated that his Spring Statement, due to be delivered on Wednesday (23 March), will be used to cut “wasteful” government spending. He is, therefore, expected to double the NHS efficiency commitment.

The NHS’s overall climate commitment is to cut emissions across all scopes by 80% by 2032, or sooner if possible, on the road to net-zero by 2040. It was revealed last summer that around half of NHS Trusts are not on track to meet their decarboninsation targets.

“It is critical that companies and key supply chain partners work with the NHS and wider health system to begin the journey [to a circular and net-zero model],” said the University of Exeter’s professor for the Circular Economy and Management Science, Professor Markus Zils. “Such a transformation would dramatically enhance the patient experience, improve financial efficiency and reduce the system’s environmental impact.”

Sarah George

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