With refurbished CT scanners in heavy demand from hospitals to fight the pandemic, the Dutch health technology giant is seeing dividends from its drive to close the loop on its medical equipment. Terry Slavin speaks to sustainability chief Robert Metzke about the confluence of climate action, healthcare and circularity

Healthcare may not be a sector that springs to mind when it comes to tackling CO2 emissions and bending the curve on our linear economy, but the intersection between climate change and health is a big preoccupation of Robert Metzke, head of sustainability at global health technology giant Philips.

Metzke points out that the World Health Organization has called the Paris climate agreement “the most important health agreement of the 21st century”.

Severe weather events linked to climate change are already testing the viability of healthcare systems, and have been responsible for causing hundreds of thousands of extra deaths and billions of extra spending.

I hope the mountain of waste will make people scratch their heads and consider seriously circular models going forward

It is a little-known fact that the healthcare sector is itself a major climate change contributor, Metzke points out, responsible for 4% of global CO2 emissions, more than aviation or shipping.

Hospitals, which are one of Philips’ biggest customers for equipment like its MRI scanners, are also a significant emitter of potent climate pollutants such as black carbon, methane, hydrofluorocarbons and anaesthetic gases.

And, as we have seen during the Covid-19 crisis, with the vast amount of single-use personal protective equipment used in hospitals to fight the pandemic, huge generators of plastic waste.

Robert Metzke, head of sustainability at Philips. (Credit: Philips)

Metzke says the stockpile highlights the failure of circular business models to make inroads into the sector. The Netherlands-based company is offering sterilisable patient-monitoring cables as a service in some big hospitals in the US, he says, but such innovative business models are new.

“I hope the mountain of waste will make people scratch their heads and consider seriously circular models going forward... such as service models, where there’s an incentive to design cables and monitors that can be sterilised and then reused.”

The crisis hasn’t affected the company’s ambitious goals to make its own operations more circular, Metzke said. By 2020 it aims to recycle 90% of its own operational waste and close the loop on all the large medical systems equipment it produces, extending circular practices to all medical equipment by 2025.

This involves rethinking products at the design stage, Metzke says.

The interesting thing, and this may be a side effect of any crisis, is that it reshuffles the cards, and puts energy into changing the status quo

“Even before thinking about [designing] a product, we think how it has to be sustainable, how we can recycle it after use. ... So it’s [about] modular design, and platform design is choosing different materials and so forth. And it’s the business model around it,” such as offering MRI scanning as a service rather than selling scanners.

During the pandemic, this work has accelerated, as Philips engineers have been working around the clock to refurbish CT scanners, which have been in high demand for diagnosing Covid-19 – bringing down the normal waiting period from six weeks per scanner to two.

Metzke says the crisis has also prompted greater collaboration between members of the World Economic Forum’s PACE platform, a multi-stakeholder initiative to scale up action on the circular economy. Co-chaired by Philips CEO Frans van Houten and the Global Environment Facility’s Naoko Ishii, PACE brings together companies, governments, environmental NGOs and foundations, including the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Since plastic is one of Philips’ biggest materials, Philips has committed to quadruple its use of recycled plastic to 7,600 tons by 2025 as part of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which also comes under the PACE umbrella.

A US employee assembles a ventilator motor; Philips is aiming to recycle 90% of operational waste by 2020.  (Credit: Philips)

“One of the main chicken and egg stories in the past was that [suppliers] are not producing [plastic] with recycled plastics because there is not a high demand for it,” he said. “So we are making these type of commitments for the next 10 years, together with other companies, to create certainty for the suppliers so that they invest in technologies, which drives up volume and drives down costs.”

This has been made harder in the last couple of months, as price differential with fossil-fuel derived virgin plastic has widened even further with the precipitous drop in oil prices, but Metzke said this illustrates even more the importance of collaboration.

“The interesting thing – and this may be a side effect of any crisis – is that it reshuffles the cards, and puts energy into the system to change the status quo. It’s a great opportunity to reach out and work with partners on these agendas,” he says.

When you move towards a circular model, that has impact on your logistics, how you move stuff around

But he added that regulation is also needed, and welcomed the European Commission’s new Circular Economy Action Plan, one of the main blocks of Europe’s Green Deal, which sets out the EU’s intention to be a global standard-setter for circularity, not only in the production of plastics, but in packaging, electronics and ICT; batteries and vehicles, textiles, construction and buildings.

The action plan proposes widening the Ecodesign Directive, which regulates energy-related products in the EU, to ensure that all products placed on the EU market stand the test of circularity.

Proposed measures include increasing recycled content in products, enabling remanufacturing and high-quality recycling, and incentivising product-as-a-service models, such as those embraced by Philips.

Philips is building solar-powered centres in rural areas of Africa to improve access to primary care. (Credit: Philips)

Metzke says the focus on circularity at Philips is complementary to the company’s climate work. The company has been operating on 100% renewable energy in its operations from last year, and was the first in healthcare company to sign up to the Science Based Targets Initiative, aligned with a 2C rise in global warming compared to pre-industrial times. It has also been on CDP’s Climate Change A List for the last six consecutive years.

Metzke pointed to a study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation last year showing that 45% of global emissions come from how products are made and used, and how food is produced.

“When you move towards a circular model, that has impact on your logistics, how you move stuff around. It also has impact on the embedded carbon in the materials that you use.” Tackling emissions targets from such an end-to-end perspective is what is required by science-based targets.

A lack of data and metrics has been flagged up as one of circular economy’s biggest challenges to overcome

“When we say at Philips that we want to improve people’s lives and at the same time respect the boundaries of the one planet that we have, we have to talk about circularity and renewable energy targets [together].”

But at the same time, he acknowledged that it is far easier to measure progress towards sourcing green electricity, for example, than on designing greater circularity into its products.

A lack of data and metrics has been flagged up as one of circular economy’s biggest challenges to overcome for it to reach scale.

And while there has been a lot of recent movement towards establishing circularity metrics, with separate initiatives by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and PACE, Metzke said it was important that they converge.

“Going forward, agreeing on a common set of metrics that are easy to understand, and really enable decision-making, is really important.”

Main picture credit: Philips


This article is part of our in-depth Circular Economy briefing. See also:

The war on plastics runs into a perfect storm with Covid-19

‘We went way too far,’ says Gucci as pandemic forces fashion industry to take stock

A mission to soften the impact of soft goods on the planet

Why are consumers failing to plug in to the circular economy?

HP and Sinctronics try to close the loop on e-waste in Brazil

Cities ‘should be at the heart of revolution in how we produce food’

Auto sector begins to map more circular road forward


healthcare  Covid-19  Coronavirus  PPE  CO2 emissions  circular economy  Philips  PACE  WEF  recycled plastic  Circular Economy Action Plan  EMF  European Green Deal  Ecodesign Directive  Science Based Targets Initiative 

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