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Rethinking the Syringe

Applying the principles of ecodesign saves both money and resources.
April 18, 2011

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.

Green syringe: A novel design from Cambridge Consultants makes packaging part of the product. Users pull out a piece of the square-shaped syringe to use as the plunger, revealing a curved surface to place against the injection site.

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.)

Evolving design: A second-generation device (right), not yet manufactured, uses a glass vial that is compatible with existing machinery used to fill syringes with medicine.

The final product is more like a square cassette than the traditional pen-shaped syringe. To inject medication, the user pulls out the top of the cassette and inverts it to create the plunger. The surface meant to rest against the skin is curved, which Roux says makes needle placement more stable and will eliminate some of the pain associated with injections. Each Syreen unit clips to the next, making the devices easy to transport individually or in a set.

Despite these benefits, Roux faced a major hurdle when shopping the first version of the syringe around to manufacturers. (Cambridge Consultants is a design firm and does not manufacture products.) While people loved the design, he says, they said they wouldn’t use it, because it wasn’t compatible with the machinery currently used for filling syringes with medication.

That’s why the team went back to the drawing board to develop the second version, which has a vial that’s compatible with the filling equipment. The new design is larger than the original, and the use of glass rather than recyclable plastic reduces some of the environmental benefits. But overall, it is still less wasteful than existing syringes. “The original design allowed us to come up with interesting ideas, and then pull back,” says Roux.

The company now plans to create a prototype of the new glass version, Syreen II, and bring it back to manufacturers. “I don’t think it’s the environmental friendliness that will sell this,” says Roux. “It’s the economy and features.”

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