Behind the Work: How AstraZeneca Turned CO2 into a Biodegradable Plastic Inhaler

The humble puffer. If you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people globally who suffer from asthma (WHO estimates the respiratory disease affects 261 million people https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/chronic-respiratory-diseases-asthma) or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) you’ll likely be familiar with the device that delivers medicine straight to the lungs. They’re unassuming plastic devices – but McCann Health and AstraZeneca Brazil have turned this small, everyday object into a big statement.

In order to highlight the exacerbating – and often fatal – impact that air pollution can have on people with asthma and COPD, they’ve created an inhaler that’s made from a biodegradable plastic that was created by capturing and converting CO2 from air pollution.

According to Fabio Rodrigues, SVP, group creative director and Brian Wiesenthal, SVP, group creative director, this idea was sparked by the finding that 22% of the seven million deaths caused annually by air pollution are due to respiratory conditions made worse by the pollution. “We thought, what if we could take pollution out of the air and make the environment safer for patients with asthma or COPD? And then, what if we could use the carbon dioxide we’re removing from the air to help patients breathe better?” they explain.

As a pharmaceutical company that works extensively with respiratory health, air pollution was something that AstraZeneca was keen to tackle. “Air pollution is a silent killer that can exacerbate respiratory conditions. But it’s not widely known or talked about. When it comes to improving respiratory health, AstraZeneca continuously strives to be innovators in the category,” say Fabio and Brian. “So, it was important for AZ to take the lead and set a future precedent where two health issues could be tackled at once – the health of the environment, and the health of patients.”

The key to the inhaler is the technology which captures air pollution and turns it into plastic. The journey took the team to Cornell University and expert chemist Geoffrey Coates. “We discovered the technology behind carbon dioxide conversion to plastic. So, we wanted to dive deep into the tech and learn as much about it as possible, especially how it could be applied. We ultimately met with a world-renowned chemist from Cornell University who had been researching and developing CO2 polymerisation for many years. And things just took off from there,” say Fabio and Brian.
For over 20 years, Geoffrey Coates has been working to create more sustainable plastics and to convert CO2 to plastic. His input was crucial to the development of the inhaler.

“Collaborating with Geoffrey was incredibly rewarding,” say Brian and Fabio. “The research and science he has developed over many years is truly game changing. And applying his knowledge to an application like the CO2 Inhaler was a necessity that helped propel this project further and further.”

Of course, cutting edge materials science was one part of the design process, but the aesthetics and visuals were just as important. “Eventually, when we moved into the design stage we aimed to achieve something simple, yet modern that could tell our story of converting pollution (represented by the black part) into purity that you could inhale (represented by the white mouthpiece). In the end, we landed on a design that broke away from the conventions of how inhalers are traditionally designed.”

The idea of the stark black and white contrast was a core aspect of the art direction from early on, though refining the design and getting to the striking, sleek final product was something of a journey.

“We worked with an industrial designer who was a very experienced innovation specialist. We started off with dozens of design options sketched out. All maintained the vision of simply telling our black converted to white story, and all very different and modern compared to how traditional inhalers have always been designed. Ultimately, one design rose to the top as our favourite and we moved forward with it.”

The project was a collaboration between AstraZeneca Brazil, and McCann Health Sao Paulo and New York. It also comes as AstraZeneca commits to being carbon negative by 2030. 

This article appeared on the LBB Online website at https://www.lbbonline.com/news/behind-the-work-how-astrazeneca-turned-co2-into-a-biodegradable-plastic-inhaler


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