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NHS Net Zero: Ambition within reach

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Part 1 of our Sustainability Series looks at the NHS Net Zero commitments towards 2050 and introduces some of the sustainable strategies available to reduce its colossal Carbon footprint.

October 2020 saw the launch of a seminal NHS report detailing its strategy to deliver a net zero health service by 2050. It showed the NHS is taking the bull by the horns to make substantive changes to the way it interacts with the environment.

The team's user research, uncovered an appetite for change that has existed for a number of years. Triggered in part by the climate protests since 2017. This is welcome news that matches many local authority declarations of climate emergency. Though until now, action hasn't provided a framework for procurement of sustainable products, equipment and technology.


The NHS has the UK's biggest single carbon footprint. It's 24 million tonnes of CO2, is more than the countries of Lebanon or Estonia. It also consumes 133,000 tonnes of plastics in the form of disposable care products, medicines, equipment and packaging, of which only 5% is currently recycled. The rest is dumped in landfill or often burnt for energy. Releasing all the carbon into the atmosphere and losing reclaimable materials that could otherwise prevent the extraction of future plastics.

Yet, the NHS has leaned towards changing its carbon footprint for a few years and aims to tackle their footprint through 4 main scopes, across what the report calls NHS Carbon Footprint and NHS Carbon Footprint Plus. The latter includes its suppliers and manufacturers.

Image depicts the NHS net zero focuses. Including energy and supply chains
The NHS net zero scopes


The NHS net zero commitments cover more than carbon. The focus includes plastics, harmful emissions, but also considers the impact of NHS CF and NHS CF+ emissions on NHS demand. An often overlooked, and perhaps taboo statistic, is that emissions from NHS procurement are active agents in the deaths of some 40,000 people annually. Treating them and other sufferers, costs the NHS £345 million every year.

Yet, to those familiar with sustainability action, these targets and are not new. The NHS new commitments align well with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) from the United Nations Global Compact. Something we pride ourselves in engineering into Automedi from the beginning. Building on the work of our parent firm.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the UN Global Compact on Corporate Sustainability
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the UN Global Compact on Corporate Sustainability

The SDGs aim to create sustainable, responsible, profitable economies, that are climate and human friendly. Circular economies are a big part of that exercise and true to that mission, Automedi seeks to deploy a circular economic model into worldwide health systems, starting with the biggest pollutant. An accolade our heroic and ultimately health-efficient NHS ominously carries.

The goals are not to be considered in isolation. They are systemic. Lending themselves to elegant solutions. Number 15 may positively impact number 13, which itself may well result from number 12. Such interdependence, creates nonlinear relationships between the goals and the actions. Meaning that solving one problem in one goal, may simultaneously magnify impacts of other goal actions simultaneously. Creating a unique opportunity to engineer solutions that move the NHS to Net Neutrality in giant leaps.

Automedi does exactly that. The appliances combine recyclable plastics, remove delivery emissions and reduce energy consumption. Its circular plastic economy encourages micro-economic partnerships, decent work and presents a rental, not capital model to the UK health and social care sectors. Machines are upgraded automatically. So care establishments always have the latest tools and older tools are used in international projects to kit out societies in the developing world or remote, isolated communities who would otherwise struggle to access the tools we take for granted.

Implicit in the plan, is a focus on plastics and emissions. The reports suggests a significant portion of emission savings will come from the NHS fleet and patient and visitor vehicles, as well as general vehicular efficiency improvements. This stands to reason. Though isn't enough. Hence the coupled action to remove carbon from the NHS supply chain.

The NHS Cumulative Carbon Reduction Trajectory Chart showing the composition of the reductions to 2050
The NHS Cumulative Carbon Reduction Trajectory

Most plastic production lines use significantly more energy to produce equipment than needed. Add delivery emissions and by the time 1kg of plastic products makes its way into the NHS, it has emitted nearly 2kg of emissions through haulage, freight, logistics and manufacturing, on top of the 4kg of oil that was extracted to make it through petroleum.

It doesn't stop there. Collecting non-tissue contaminated plastic waste and delivering it to recycling facilities emits another 130g of CO2 per kg. Unrecycled plastics are either dumped in landfill or burnt for energy. The latter releasing 1kg of residual Carbon compounds and other harmful particles into the atmosphere. In total, the 1kg of plastic has emitted up to 3kg of emissions throughout its lifetime and cost 4kg of oil. 7kg of fossil carbon, for 1kg of plastics. A figure that is totally unsustainable.

Even simply making products on site, cuts carbon emissions from delivering 1kg of plastics, by 2kg. If you can recycle the plastics already in the system, you cut down the 4kg of oil pumped from the ground that replace 1kg of plastics, with the same 1kg of plastics originally extracted, multiple times. Exploiting traditionally disadvantageous polymer lifetimes by turning that negative, into a positive, through enduring recycling which retains polymer properties through the recycling process.

Lifecycle model showing the source and end of life of NHS plastics with figures
The current NHS Plastics Lifecycle

This is all exciting stuff! The question is, who becomes responsible for this in the health system? How do circular economies work? Watch this space!


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Do you work in the NHS and have been told about these commitments? What do you think of them? We'd love for you to let us know! Drop them in the comments or contact us.

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