Crisis is the right word to refer to the environmental devastation we are living through in the current times. Individuals can be as green and sustainable in their habits as humanly possible, but their singular effort is nothing if not supported by immediate action by large organisations, such as the UK’s NHS. The NHS is the largest employer in the country, with the breadth of its activities evident in how it’s also responsible for 4% of the country’s total carbon emissions. This grossly exorbitant number only serves to underline the necessity of their intervention into reducing their carbon footprint.

How big is the footprint across 30 years?

The NHS has demonstrated a marked decrease in their carbon emissions since 1990 to 2020. In accordance with the Climate Change Act of 2008, the NHS divides the activities they monitor for their carbon output. However, the Climate Change Act covers a much more diverse scope of activities following Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP), not all of which are under the direct targets set by the NHS. Nonetheless, the progress is encouraging: 2019 saw a 62% percentage decrease of carbon emissions in the NHS’s core activities from 1990 to 2020, while the supply chain-related activities that the NHS are involved in has seen a 26% percentage decrease within the same timeframe.

What are the goals?

The big headlining target is that the NHS is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2040. Concretely, this means that the NHS and by extension, their trusts, and subsidiaries, are to implement measures that would result in their operations either producing significantly less emissions or deliberate measures to offset their carbon footprint such as afforestation in order to cancel out the environmental impact of their activities. The specific waste reduction targets are continued commitment to the NHS Plastics Reduction Pledge, reducing reliance on single use paper through digitisation and a 10% reduction in single-use plastics in clinics, among others.

More detailed information on their targets are available in the 2022 report. These all gear towards less use of finite materials like plastic and paper, impacting their production and disposal, all of which lead to increased carbon emissions.

The circular economy within the NHS

The realisation of this future will take various forms, depending on which sector and NHS trust you use. The NHS website provides regular updates to their various efforts in decreasing their carbon footprint, alongside the concrete actions that they put into play to achieve these results. Alongside shifts to greener energy sources and raising community awareness, these operations pinpoint the aforementioned waste reduction targets and endeavour to achieve them. This is an understandably difficult task particularly for the health sector, as the reflexive instinct when trying to treat illness and maintain hygiene is to discard soiled materials in the name of cleanliness. However, there are steps that can be meaningfully taken, such as mitigating clinics’ dependency on single-use plastics to reduce further accumulation of plastic waste.

One such avenue that the NHS uses to improve their waste reduction is participation in the circular economy. The circular economy is a model of production and consumption that seeks to extend a product’s lifetime as much as possible through various processes, such as dematerialisation, recycling sharing and intensifying use. The circular economy has clear benefits as listed below:

1. Reduce Carbon emissions
2. Maximise value to the Tax payer
3. Opportunity Collaboration across Health and Social Care, and the wider public sector
4. Generate income
5. Doing the right thing
The circular economy is present in several of the NHS’s waste management strategies: a reupholstering service and a reuse and remanufacture initiative for medical devices, both managed by NHS Supply Chain. Though a promising start, these remain a paltry manifestation of the good the circular economy could provide if implemented safely and correctly.

Where to next?

The NHS is on track to do a lot of good in their waste reduction and green movements, but the road ahead to net-zero is long. One possible direction the NHS and their trusts might benefit from engaging further in is the circular economy. Platforms such as Evolve Recycle by ELCOM make this vision a tangible reality, offering a virtual marketplace for healthcare organisations to communicate and trade resources in the effort to reuse and repurpose medical consumables, office equipment, or indeed any product in excess capacity, in a safe manner, as these transactions are made by healthcare professionals. By directly linking interested parties and mutually providing better visibility and accessibility to materials, resources, and contacts, Evolve Recycle is the bridge to ensuring that no equipment goes to waste without supplying all of its potential utility.

If the NHS are to hit Net-zero and Cost Improvement targets in the face of rising inflation and other external pressures, they need to utilise their assets, capacity and stock through collaboration. ELCOM’s Evolve Recycle provides the perfect solution for ICS’s and Trusts to truly collaborate to reduce waste, carbon footprint and even to generate income. Similar virtual marketplaces have seen success in other countries, such as Pharmaswap in the Netherlands. The platform has resulted in more than GBP 600,000+ of prevented wastage and 12,000kg of carbon dioxide emissions avoided, among other impressive successes.

Looking to our neighbours shows us what we could also be achieving. The NHS has their work cut out for them but with the right tools, the 2040 dream of net-zero emissions is easily attainable.


  • James Thirkill

    Having led companies that served a large proportion of the NHS Trusts, NHS England, NHS SBS, NHS Supply Chain, National Procurement Scotland, all the major Private Healthcare Groups, and all Multi-National suppliers James can help businesses looking to grow in Healthcare.

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