With circular economy to more sustainability

The benefits of shifting from a linear to a circular economy.

Julia Donhauser-Bach
Published on August 7, 2023

In 1966, economist Kenneth E. Boulding used the metaphor “spaceship earth” to launch an idea into the global environmental debate: the circular economy. This concept offers multiple benefits for healthcare: It reduces the carbon footprint of the systems, helps healthcare providers improve their life cycle assessments, and increases access to innovative technology. 

<p>In his 1966 essay, <em id="isPasted">The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth</em>, Boulding writes, “… the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system….”<sup>1</sup> Today, circular economy has become a key tool in the fight against many challenges posed by the climate crisis. By definition, the concept imagines the economy as a continuous flow in which products are made in a resource-efficient way and their materials remain in the cycle at their highest value.<sup>2</sup></p><p>“The medtech industry recognized the versatile benefits of a circular economy some time ago. Siemens Healthineers, for example, has been refurbishing medical imaging systems for more than 20 years,” says Patricia Gehrlein, Circular Economy Program Manager at Siemens Healthineers. For the past few years, she has been driving the circular economy at various levels of the organization. “By refurbishing systems and spare parts, we make ourselves less dependent on scarce resources. We also effectively reduce the carbon footprint of the systems, which in turn has a positive impact on our customers’ life cycle assessment.”</p>

<p>Everything starts before the actual production: The medical imaging system must be designed with circular economy and resource-efficiency in mind. Designers must plan the system’s materials, maintenance, repairability, upgradability and refurbishability — and this accounts for both the hardware and the software.</p><p>“The systems from Siemens Healthineers follow the ‘Baukasten’<sup>3</sup> methodology, a modular product design that considers circular characteristics from the very beginning,” says Gehrlein. In this way, service can be simplified, and regular maintenance can extend the product life cycle. Upgrades can also bring systems up to the state of the art, making them more energy efficient or improving their clinical capabilities.</p><p>Extending the product’s life cycle is becoming an increasingly important consideration for customers: These are exactly the kind of points considered in total-cost-of-ownership analyses for investments. Future analyses will include sustainability criteria that will make the system more cost-efficient in the long term.</p>

<p>Once the system is installed at the customer’s site, the handling of spare parts becomes a key factor in making sure products and components remain in the cycle. Melanie Schwarzmann is the head of vendor logistics solutions and has been committed to circular harvesting of spare parts for many years now. Her goal is to find a second home for as many parts as possible. “Over 50 percent of returned used parts can be repaired, refurbished, and then put into spare parts storage to await their next use,” she explains. Many parts, such as computers, can stay in the spare parts cycle and be used again. Even individual parts from an X-ray tube, such as the casings, find a second life in another device. They must comply with strict regulations to always guarantee the safety of the systems. “Where a part is not repairable, we have it recycled, preferably in the country where it was last used to avoid unnecessary transportation,” Schwarzmann continues.<sup>4</sup></p>
<p>Imaging systems, such as magnetic resonance scanners or computed tomography scanners, can also be refurbished. “Besides playing a significant role in improving circular economy, refurbished systems also improve access to innovative medical technology because they can be sold at a more affordable price with the quality standards of ‘as good as new,’” explains Gehrlein.</p>
Circular economy
<p>The packaging in which components and parts or entire systems are transported is a major part of circular economy. Yet the issue is not exclusively about recycling the packaging after it has done its job. Rather, it is about reducing packaging and reusing it. Günther Dornauer is head of package engineering and knows how important the reduction of packaging material is for a successful circular economy. “By redesigning the packaging, for example, the same equipment can get by with less material. That sounds easier than it is. There is a lot of development and validation work in our packaging,” Dornauer explains. He and his team scrutinize every package: What requirements does the packaging have to fulfil? What country-specific regulations must be complied with to enable safe and smooth delivery? How can the packaging be reused, rather than disposed of, after transport? Packaging also involves taking a close look at transport routes and design the packaging accordingly.</p><p>These questions are not just about reducing the environmental impact. “Of course, one important goal is to reduce CO<sub id="isPasted">2</sub> emissions. But it is just as important for us to significantly reduce waste and dependency on resources,” says Dornauer.&nbsp;</p><p>Getting “Spaceship Earth” future-proof requires just such questioning – of both existing processes and future developments. The widespread shift from a linear to a circular economy will take time, but the way is paved for durable and accessible medical systems. “It’s important to understand that the circular economy is not a single measure. It is a holistic concept that is relevant for the entire value chain,” emphasizes Gehrlein.</p>
In the first part, you will learn about the major role of circular product design and how important the extension of the life cycle is for a functioning circular economy.

By Julia Donhauser-Bach
Julia Donhauser-Bach is an editor at Siemens Healthineers.