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Environment: where does the pharmaceutical industry stand?

Michael Earl

Industry is taking environmental commitments more seriously, especially after pivotal events such as COP26 and publication of the IPCC’s cautionary ‘now or never’ report.

Pharma is no exception, with some of the biggest companies making impressive strides in recent years. To build a bigger picture of sustainable action across the broader pharmaceutical industry, Owen Mumford Pharmaceutical Services reviewed the current state of play among the top 25 companies reporting environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) scores. The review identifies areas where companies have set concrete targets, and others where more action is needed. As a key delivery device partner for pharma companies, Owen Mumford is among companies within the wider healthcare supply chain. As healthcare organisations and businesses set increasingly ambitious targets, suppliers are following suit. Understanding where these targets are focused therefore provides a framework for action across the industry.

Where are pharmaceutical companies setting clear targets?

1. Energy
Streamlining energy use is particularly attractive from a commercial point of view, helping to reduce operating costs. Comprehensive energy policies in the pharma sector tend to combine the use of renewable energy sources with self-generation and the reduction of energy requirements in the manufacturing process. The pharmaceutical manufacturing process is energy-intensive, since energy is needed for most processes, from heating and cooling to humidification and air drying. To make a significant dent in energy use, manufacturers need to take a holistic view of their operations, assessing the energy consumption of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems – which generally account for 65% of overall use – as well as equipment such as vacuum pumps, pressure regulators and spray systems. Introducing digital tools and artificial intelligence can lead to even higher savings, by enabling constant monitoring of manufacturing conditions, for instance, so that temperature or ventilation can be regulated. By leveraging AI-generated data, manufacturers can continually improve energy management in their facilities.

2. Water
Pharma is a major consumer of water; beyond cleaning, water may be needed as an excipient, for the reconstitution of products, or during synthesis. 50% of pharma companies have already set hard targets in this category. Businesses are finding solutions to reduce consumption, but also to clean and reprocess water. For instance, since manufacturing plants use different grades of water quality, purified water can be recovered and reused for another purpose, where a lesser quality is acceptable. To provide a practical example, purified water used for the final rinse of equipment can be used for a pre-rinse elsewhere. One international generics company is aiming to achieve 100% water ‘neutrality’ by 2025, meaning that the quantity of water ‘harvested’ will be equal to fresh water consumption. Multiple strategies can be employed to achieve neutrality. Firstly, ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ principles can be implemented in the plant to minimise water consumption – as in the example outlined above. Secondly, rainwater can be captured and reused to further minimise external water use. Thirdly, companies can offset fresh water consumption by investing in projects for sustainable water management outside of their own facilities.

3. Waste
While 28% of pharmaceutical companies have set targets to reduce their waste emissions by at least one-quarter, their approaches may differ, with some companies trying to avoid landfill use, and others opting for a zero-waste strategy. There is a commercial incentive to reducing waste. In the UK, it is estimated that companies typically spend 4-5% of turnover on waste – not only due to disposal, but also through inefficient use of raw materials, unnecessary use of energy and water, or waste treatment – and this figure can be as high as 10%. In the pharmaceutical industry, this could include medicines that do not get used before expiration dates due to overproduction, or incorrect disposal of solvents. Solvents make up a significant share of waste from the chemical industry, and companies may not be doing enough to improve disposal efficiency, despite the potential cost savings. Other measures to sustainably dispose of waste while reducing cost include separating pharmaceutical solids from packaging, so that non-hazardous materials can be recycled or diverted into general waste, or reselling waste products that have value elsewhere.

4. Emissions
It is estimated that the pharmaceutical industry directly generates about 52 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year – 55% higher than emissions from the automotive industry, according to an oft-quoted study. This excludes indirect energy- related emissions in the entire supply chain, during transportation or distribution. Pharma companies are making efforts to address this, and almost 70% have set specific targets around air emissions. It is important to take a holistic and nuanced view of processes to reduce overall emissions. For instance, sea freight may be a more environmentally-friendly choice than air freight – with air shipping releasing 63 times the emissions according to one estimate – but there may be drawbacks to sea transport that affect overall emissions. As well as carbon emissions, pharmaceutical companies are also assessing the release of gaseous pollutants, such as acid gases, basic gases, dust and aerosols, pharmaceutical ‘actives’ and volatile organic compounds.


Where do companies need to take bigger steps?

1. Pharmaceutical pollution
In a recent study, considered the most comprehensive to date, scientists measured the concentration of 61 active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) at more than 1,000 sites along 258 rivers and in 104 countries, covering all continents. Only two sites were found to be unpolluted. This cannot be solely attributed to manufacturing, since APIs may reach the natural environment during use or disposal, but companies could be doing more to address this serious issue. 84% of companies have a policy on Pharmaceuticals in the Environment (PiE) and 36% have a policy on the related issue of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR), but none has actual targets in these areas. With AMR identified by UN Environment as one of the greatest threats to global public health, there needs to be greater urgency in formulating a response.

2. Packaging
Streamlining packaging or switching to renewable materials could present quick wins for pharmaceutical companies, but only 13% of companies have set hard targets. 76% of pharma companies have a policy on packaging, but this is not translating into concrete action. Historically, safety and sterility have been key priorities in packaging decisions, so it may be that the industry has yet to reassess criteria to include environmental considerations. As well as sustainable alternatives in packing material, it may be possible to reduce the weight of packaging or make packing processes more efficient.

Switching materials may not necessarily result in a net environmental gain, so decision-makers will need to take a broad view. Some companies are assessing whether they can replace some plastic use with recycled/sustainable paper, where possible. Another alternative is polyolefin laminate packaging, which is 70% recyclable and can be used for unit dose packaging of solid formulations such as tablets. Digital tools could be used to reduce the amount of information on packaging or inserts. For instance, QR codes could allow users to conveniently access up-to-date information about a medication, minimising printed inserts. In Japan this is already the case, but EU and US regulators are yet to approve the move to digital instructions. Rationalising packaging or changing materials often comes with a commercial benefit. Adopting polyolefin laminate packaging, for instance, can lower packaging-associated costs by up to 60%.

Narrowing the gap
The overall picture of sustainability progress is a positive one, but action in this field has to be ongoing. The review by Owen Mumford Pharmaceutical Services found large variation – over 40 percentage points – between top performers and those that are starting their journey. Those in the early stages were not necessarily smaller companies, or based in a certain geography. A separate analysis cites the example of a pharma company whose CO2 emissions were five times greater than an industry counterpart, despite selling similar products and generating similar revenue.

The biggest differentiator therefore appears to be corporate will, rather than budget or location. A next step for the industry is to narrow the gap and achieve greater consistency. Greater standardisation may facilitate this. It can be challenging to compare progress when companies each report activities in a different way. This can skew analyses and contribute to variance. ESG certifications are one way of addressing this issue. The B Corporation movement – of which Owen Mumford is a certified member – assesses all applicants using the same rigorous framework, and this must be renewed periodically. External scrutiny such as this ensures companies stay on track with their goals and holds them accountable – both internally and externally.

At Owen Mumford, we have implemented a number of measures to reduce our own environmental impact. As well as being among one of the first medical device manufacturers globally to achieve B Corp certification, we are pursuing other ambitious initiatives. We have set our targets to achieve net zero by 2045 through the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), and aim to halve our carbon emissions by 2030.

Michael Earl is the Director of Pharmaceutical Services at Owen Mumford

15th August 2022

Michael Earl is the Director of Pharmaceutical Services at Owen Mumford

15th August 2022

From: Marketing


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