A new report outlines the importance of adopting circular economy practices in meeting the NHS’ ambitious net zero targets

Urgent action ‘critical’ to tackling NHS carbon emissions and reaching 2040 net zero target

The NHS and its suppliers have been urged to systemically adopt circular economy practices to stand any chance of meeting the government’s commitment to achieve a net zero NHS by 2040.

Research from the University of Exeter, in partnership with Philips UK and Ireland, sets out the scale of the challenge and opportunity for the NHS to become the world’s first net zero health service.

It calculates that the NHS’ carbon footprint, including its wider supply chain, is 31 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, of which 62% can be attributed to its suppliers.

The report states that to achieve the government’s target for the NHS of net zero by 2040, emissions must be reduced 8% each year from 2020 to 2036 - a rate far higher than the 1% historical average.

The report also highlights the issue of waste, with NHS England providers creating nearly 600,000 tonnes of waste a year at a management cost £700 million, exposing hospital staff, healthcare workers, waste handlers, patients and the community at large to infection, toxic effects and injuries. 

To meet emissions targets, the report calls for the extensive adoption of circular economy practices across the NHS and its suppliers.

Markus Zils, co-author of the report and Professor for Circular Economy and Management Science at the University of Exeter, said: “NHS leaders have outlined their commitments to making health services more sustainable, but the pace of change has to swiftly accelerate. Our research has outlined that meeting the NHS’s ambitious net zero targets is only possible with the adoption of circular economy practices.

“It is critical that companies and key supply chain partners work with the NHS and wider health system to begin this journey. Such a transformation would dramatically enhance the patient experience, improve financial efficiency and reduce the system’s environmental impact.”

The report states that stakeholders across government, the NHS and industry must work together to set a new standard for procurement, improve supply chain due diligence and foster innovation to ensure a shift to circular economy practices is sustained.

It makes 45 recommendations across three stakeholder parties – the NHS, suppliers and regulators. These include: 


-          Embrace circular economy business models through incentivising and targeting upstream supply chain partners.

-          Use procurement as a driver of emissions reductionby underwriting circular economy compliance into the procurement process.

-          Become a test-bed for circular economy and green technology and develop carbon and financial savings use cases across a series of circular economy interventions.


-          Move beyond energy efficiency and incremental innovation to systemic innovation that embraces circular economy business models and long-term value creation.

-          Align products and services to the NHS Evergreen framework,showcasing circular economy solutions and evidence of reducing Scope 3 emissions.

-          Ensure stringent progress on Scope 1 and 2 emissions through clean-energy-powered manufacturing and designing out unnecessary waste.


-          Adapt policy and regulation to incentivise and nudge the NHS and its supplierstowards the adoption of Circular Economy practices to achieve NHS net zero ambitions.

-          Policy and regulation should fund and provide a cross-industry platform in pre-competitive spaces to road-test innovation and ensure quality is assured.

-          Improve certification and enforcement of circular economy standards to ensure viability of innovative services and avoid abuse.

Mark Leftwich, Managing Director of Philips UK and Ireland, said:“Now the Government and NHS England are aligned to the net zero agenda and have set ambitious targets achieve it, trusts and suppliers, like Philips, must take urgent action to begin the process of change.

“As the NHS adapts to tackle growing backlogs for diagnosis and treatment, there is an opportunity to modernise models of care and procurement to actively target Scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions and enhance patient care.”

“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. 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 report features a foreword from Sally Edgington, Director of AXREM, the UK trade association for suppliers of diagnostic medical imaging, radiotherapy, healthcare IT and care equipment.

She said: “I am delighted that this research has provided a vital and timely contribution, not only for assessing the scale of the challenge and opportunity, but also providing a clear approach to help the NHS achieve its net zero ambitions.

“The medical device and technology community must play a critical role, by furthering the recommendations made in this report, and supporting the NHS to fulfil its mandate for providing quality care, while simultaneously reducing its carbon footprint.

“AXREM shares the viewpoint of Philips that the two are not mutually exclusive. The industry must work with the NHS, regulators, HM Government and suppliers to fulfil this critical and urgent ambition. It is our responsibility to embark on this journey, together. We welcome the research and thank both Philips and the University of Exeter for their contributions.”

Date: 22 March 2022

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