Green products are everywhere, from water bottles that use less plastic to energy-efficient buildings to jackets made from recycled materials. But one sector that green principles have yet to infiltrate is health care; manufacturers of medical products are focused on safety rather than sustainability. Serge Roux, an industrial designer with the technology design firm Cambridge Consultants, says that those two goals need not be mutually exclusive.
Roux has created a syringe, called the Syreen (“syringe” plus “green”), that maintains the safety features of traditional syringes but might also help reduce waste. “I started the project purely with ecodesign as motivation,” he says, “but as we went along, we found it added a lot of other benefits.”
The major design innovation in Syreen is that the syringe itself doubles as protective packaging. In one version of Syreen made from recyclable plastic, an interlocking stack of four syringes is 50 percent smaller by volume and 30 percent less by weight than the conventional product, which is packaged in a cardboard box. A second version now in the works, which is made of glass, is slightly larger than the plastic one but still packs up significantly smaller than traditional versions. That reduces the price of shipping as well as the environmental footprint and the amount of space needed to store the product. (The plastic design uses a polymer that is more expensive than glass, so it’s unclear how much those syringes would cost compared with traditional ones. Cambridge Consultants predicts that the glass version will be the same price as current syringes or less, because it doesn’t have as many parts.)
Eighty percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined during the design phase, says Roux. “So it’s more about smart design than making the same thing with less plastic.” Roux estimates that of the more than 6,000 tons of medical waste produced per day in the United States, about 800 tons could be recycled but isn’t because the nonhazardous material is attached to a small piece that is contaminated.
In a typical syringe, only the needle tip and the surrounding piece of plastic are contaminated after injection, but because that piece retracts into the glass barrel, the entire product must be discarded. In Roux’s syringe, the plastic tip that houses the needle is easily ejected from the device, leaving the rest as noncontaminated waste. (Roux cautions that this is new territory for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so it’s unclear what the regulations for disposing of this type of syringe would be.)