Written and clinically reviewed by Marissa Town, RN, BSN, CDCES
Reducing our impact on the environment is important, but having diabetes means we generate some medical waste. We celebrate increased access to diabetes technology, but the amount of plastic and packaging waste as a result also increases dramatically.
Creating medical devices that are safe for disposal, easy to use, and don’t generate a lot of waste can be challenging. As a person with diabetes, I think about this every time I dispose of my infusion sets, cartridges, and CGMs, which all have plastic that cannot be recycled without the complicated use of tools to remove the biohazard and sharps waste.
For example, the Dexcom G6 sensor product has approximately 80 grams of plastic,1 and to recycle the plastic, the insertion device must be fully taken apart with a screwdriver to get the needle out of the applicator.2 For some infusion sets, pliers must be used to remove the needle in order to recycle the plastic waste. This means that many people are simply putting their plastic and biohazard waste into the trash or into sharps containers, and none of the devices can be recycled, which creates millions of pounds of plastic waste annually.1
According to this article about diabetes technology and waste, sometimes only 10% of the total product with packaging is the actual medical device, leaving 90% of waste.1 A lot of this waste is made from plastic that is not always recyclable, due to challenges of separating the medical waste or the use of low-quality plastics.1 Another complication is the combination of plastics with electronic components that are difficult to separate for recycling.1
In May of 2021, Europe instituted guidelines for reducing waste, and part of those guidelines specify Medical Device Regulation of waste.1 Some diabetes industry companies have already started working towards reducing their environmental impact, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.1 A looming question is will the other companies follow suit?
“There are many layers to the waste problem, including manufacturing, shipping, designing, and sales, which, in turn provides different approaches to tackling the problems.1 One example discussed in the article that resonated with me regarded the Instructions for Use booklets that come in every insulin box, infusion set boxes, cartridge boxes, etc. These are things that unless you are first learning to use the product or medication, it is unlikely you will ever open it to read it, and will get discarded hopefully in the recycling.1
Diabetes Researcher Dr. Lutz Heinemann, who co-authors the article cited, states that “Plastic waste is a topic that will get much more attention in the near future and we have to form a coalition that bring all relevant partner together to reduce this issue.” He and co-author Dr. David Klonoff suggest that the power of the consumer can help lead diabetes companies to make greener choices by putting pressure on politicians, companies, and governments to help reduce the waste in diabetes.1
A coalition of PWD, organizations working to help PWD, health care professionals working in diabetes, and diabetes industry partners can do so much together. Improving our health care, improving our outcomes, and reducing our impact on the environment would be a terrific triad!