The plastic challenge
25 September 2020
For many people, cutting consumption of plastic has become the norm, just as recycling in general is now part of day-to-day life. But what if your life depends on a plastic product which has no obvious second life?
For people living with diabetes, their insulin pen is an essential daily companion. But even if an insulin pen consists of around 77% plastic, it cannot be thrown into the plastic recycling bin along with empty juice bottles and food packaging. Current guidance varies from country to country, but often used insulin pens end up in general household waste, which according to Dorethe Nielsen, vice president of Environmental Strategy at Novo Nordisk, is far from an optimal solution.
“Every year we produce and distribute more than 550 million pen devices worldwide, and as this number grows, it puts us at the forefront of one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges: plastic waste,” she explains.
“Even though we strive to use as environmentally friendly materials as possible, it’s still not an optimal use of resources if used insulin pens end up in landfills. That’s why we’re working to find a better and more circular solution – one that allows our devices to have a second life.”
Plastic chairs and recycled lamps
An insulin pen is made from several components and is – for obvious reasons – not designed to be easily disassembled once it has rolled off the production line. In order to recycle the plastic parts, Novo Nordisk first needed to find a way of automatically sorting the pen’s many components.
“We were almost at the point of writing this task off as impossible, when a talented colleague within production designed a machine which could do exactly what we needed it to do,” Dorethe says.
As a pilot, the machine was tested on pens discarded after production – and has yielded impressive results.
“It just worked – so well, in fact, that we were able to use the discarded plastic to make office chairs in collaboration with a Danish design firm,” Dorethe says. “Meanwhile, the glass from our discarded insulin vials has also been given a new lease of life after being melted down to create lamps,” Dorethe says.
The challenge now is to scale up the solution, which until now has only been used for pens that never make it off the production line.
“It shows us that it is possible,” Dorethe adds. “We are now engaging with partners who can handle our used insulin pens on a much larger scale, while at the same time making sure that the materials are being put to good use.”
Launching a take-back pilot
For all of this to work, one important link in the chain is still missing. An effective way of collecting used insulin pens from patients – a so-called ‘take-back’ programme – still does not exist in most countries.
“We need to come up with an easy way of collecting used pens from the users. This might sound like an easy task, but it is really something that has proven to be quite a challenge – especially on a global scale,” Dorethe says.
Dorethe is, however, expecting Novo Nordisk to launch a take-back pilot in some countries during the next couple of years. At the same time, her hope is that in future this challenge will be one that the pharmaceutical industry can unite on.
“My hope is that we can solve this together as an industry,” she says. “This is a challenge which is best approached by all of us finding a single, scalable solution, making it easy for our patients and us to take better care of the environment.”
Not only about pens
Dorethe underlines, that the take-back pilot is not the only way, in which we work to reuse or recycle plastic.
“We have a clear ambition to become a fully circular company, and therefore our commitment to playing our part in solving the world’s plastic challenge does not start and stop with insulin pens,” she says.
Dorethe explains that different kinds of plastic calls for different approaches.
“In 2019, we banned all single-used plastic not used for specific and relevant purposes within our R&D organisation or in production,” she says.
“But within production we also have another type of high-quality plastic waste which could easily be given a new life in all sorts of products. Since early 2000 we have been heavily invested in making sure that this happens wherever possible.”
According to Dorethe, this work is starting to bear fruit and our global production now recycles more than 90% of its waste.
“For a long time, we have been collecting plastic waste from our production, making sure that it is reused or recycled,” she says.
“But in the recent years we have seen a change in society towards a more sustainable mindset, which has allowed us to make demands on who we provide to, and that our plastic is used for sustainable products.”
“I think these are really exciting times, where we see a lot of companies and organisations coming together in finding solutions to problems that should be top of mind for all of us – how we take better care of our environment and create a more circular world.”