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Plastics reborn: Inside Novo Nordisk’s prefilled pen recycling pilot

November 13, 2022
Life sciences

Earlier this year, Novo Nordisk said it produces some 600 million pen devices around the world each year, putting the company at the “forefront” of the plastic waste predicament. These days, Novo Nordisk is reincarnating many of its spent insulin pens as office furniture like chairs and lamps.

It’s an increasingly common fate for the company’s used injection devices under Novo’s fledgling PenCycle program.

After making its debut in Denmark, the prefilled pen recycling pilot has expanded to Brazil and recently also launched in the U.K., Katrine DiBona, Novo Nordisk’s corporate vice president of global public affairs and sustainability, said in a recent interview.

Novo Nordisk has said that it produces some 600 million pen devices around the world each year, putting the company at the “forefront” of the plastic waste predicament. “Even though we strive to use as environmentally friendly materials as possible, it’s still not an optimal use of resources if used insulin pens end up in landfills,” Dorethe Nielsen, vice president of Environmental Strategy at Novo Nordisk, noted in a company release in January.

“That’s why we’re working to find a better and more circular solution—one that allows our devices to have a second life,” Nielsen added. The company’s CEO Lars Jørgensen told Fierce Pharma in August: “It takes 120 insulin pens to make a Novo Nordisk plastic chair.”

The PenCycle program is still in its relative infancy, having first launched with three pilots in Novo’s home country of Denmark. “We actually did that in the middle of COVID,” DiBona said in her interview, which “did not make it easier.” Nevertheless, “patients still embraced the initiative,” she noted, adding that customers had expressed curiosity about a more sustainable alternative to simply throwing away their used devices.

In Denmark, the pilot program achieved return rates of more than 20%, DiBona said. Moving west to the U.K., meanwhile, the program is rolling out in a handful of cities to start, with plans to expand the program nationally in 2023.

For now, patients in the U.K. can drop off their used devices for diabetes, obesity and growth disorders at a range of British pharmacies like Boots, Lloyds and Rowlands or through the mail, sparing the devices a trip to the landfill or incinerator.

“Of course, that’s part of the challenge,” DiBona admitted. “How do we go from a few pharmacies or mail-back solutions to really getting the scale of it?”

After the U.K., the project will debut in France, she added. There, Novo aims to launch the PenCycle program by year-end or early 2023.

As for whether the program could make its way to the U.S., the company is consistently looking at opportunities to expand PenCycle to bigger markets, DiBona said. At the same time, however, Novo needs to make sure the countries where the program operates boast sufficient infrastructure and environmental maturity, she explained.

The U.S. is naturally a good candidate for the program on size alone, she noted, but the company wants to ensure the “timing is right.”

Regardless of the countries involved, recycling campaigns like Novo’s “really [need] to be an industry solution to be sustainable,” DiBona said. “It doesn’t make sense that the individual patient can drop off their Novo Nordisk pen but not their Lilly or Sanofi one,” she pointed out, highlighting the “more the merrier” spirit of the PenCycle program.

“It’s not a competition,” DiBona added. In Denmark, for instance, the company has had “great dialogue” on recycling collaborations with its rivals Eli Lilly and Sanofi.

That level of cooperation is paramount to the program’s scalability and financial stability, DiBona said. “The more we can take back, the more efficient the program becomes.”

PenCycle forms just one piece of Novo Nordisk’s Circular for Zero strategy, under which the company is angling to erase its environmental impact come 2030 by switching to renewable electricity, designing eco-friendly products and extending those principles to suppliers.

That far-reaching environmental stewardship touches all aspects of the PenCycle program, including transportation, DiBona explained. “So, for example, in the U.K., we would take the same boat [back] that took the pens there … to make sure the backend solution is also sustainable,” she said.

Once the injectors wind up at Danish recycling sites, Novo strives to make sure the high-quality plastics and glass that go into its medical devices are used for repurposed products “of an equal value,” DiBona explained.

While that currently takes the form of office chairs and lamps, Novo Nordisk’s ultimate goal is to devise a method to repurpose its injection pens as new pharmaceutical devices. Purity and technical problems still abound on that front, but “maybe we’ll get there someday,” the Novo Nordisk executive opined, saying “ideally that’s the closed loop you would be after.”

By Fraiser Kansteiner


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