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Pharmaceutical companies going "green" - what exactly does this mean?

Posted on 25 November 2020

Global businesses now recognise that going "green" means doing more than tackling single use plastics and reducing waste. One sector yet to be brought to the forefront of sustainability efforts, but which has quietly been attempting to go "green", is the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, it was one of the first industries to embrace the "green" movement but, to date, efforts have been voluntary.  However, regulators and interested parties are now slowly beginning to take note and demand better behaviour.  

For a number of years, pharmaceutical companies have been promoting and encouraging sustainable pharmaceutical products and manufacturing processes through voluntary targets. These are commendable, but voluntary targets do not enjoy universal take up and can result in a mismatch of targets which cannot be measured and compared on a like for like basis across the industry. Without suitable scrutiny, it can be difficult for the public and regulators to encourage better behaviour.

In the absence of formal regulation, and in an attempt to harmonise standards, the Safer Pharma campaign has been promoting and encouraging clear processes to reduce pharmaceutical waste into the environment. More recently, the European Commission published a Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability Towards a Toxic-Free Environment with the aim of making chemicals more sustainable and protecting the environment against hazardous waste. 

Industry bodies are steadily turning their attention to the pharmaceutical industry. This further evidences the growing regulatory trend seen in other sectors and the increased focus on sustainability by international industry bodies and governments which has seen regulations expand, these expansions include restrictions placed on the use of insecticides or antibiotics in the agricultural and the carbon tax. It is therefore imperative that pharmaceutical companies consider their environmental profile. To do this, companies should consider and assess the environmental impact of each drug's life-cycle, from discovery through to production and formulation, supply chain and logistics, packaging and how unused products are ultimately disposed of. Companies should then implement environmental measures accordingly.

Appreciating the breadth of the task, three key areas of focus for pharmaceutical companies seeking to operate their product supply chains in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly manner are:

  1. Carbon footprint
    Pharmaceutical companies directly emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from their drug manufacturing facilities and logistics operations. This is in addition to the indirect emissions from the production of power used in the drug manufacturing process and building operations.

    The emission of greenhouse gases can be addressed by pharmaceutical companies implementing more energy efficient systems, using electric vehicles in their logistics operations and considering energy requirements when selecting raw chemicals and materials. Another way is by obtaining Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certifications; these are independent verifications that the company's buildings, design, construction and operations are resource-efficient and, as such, minimise its carbon footprint.

    Given pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to be able to transition away quickly from carbon emitting energy sources, they should monitor their carbon emissions on an ongoing basis.
  2. Green Chemistry
    "Green chemistry" is the design of a chemical process that reduces the use, and creation of, hazardous substances during the drug development process, whilst seeking to minimise the environmental impact of the drug production process in a cost-effective manner.  Green chemistry is a fundamental aspect of a pharmaceutical company's quest for sustainability, falling at the heart of the "green" pharmaceutical movement.

    "Green chemistry" will steadily become more achievable and maintainable as the pharmaceutical industry: moves towards biotechnologies; uses fewer chemical steps in drug production processes; and introduces the use of green solvents in production processes.
  3. Pharmaceutical pollution
    The UN's Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management identifies pharmaceutical pollution as an emerging global priority, with particular concern regarding waste from the formulation and manufacture of active pharmaceutical ingredients.

    Pharmaceutical pollution is a form of water pollution whereby water is polluted with pharmaceutical drugs, posing dangers to the environment and human health e.g. drugs can end up in drinking water.  For drugs to be effective, the active pharmaceutical ingredients are designed to resist metabolic degradation. The unfortunate and unintentional consequence of this is that such ingredients remain active in the water environment and do not degrade.

    Pharmaceutical pollution is a worldwide issue that the Safer Pharma campaign seeks to address by encouraging pharmaceutical companies to clean up their production processes, raising awareness amongst health professionals of the environmental impact of drug development, and promoting better medicine disposal practices.

The areas above are just the beginning of pharmaceutical companies' attempts to improve their environmental profiles. To deliver ground breaking drugs in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, pharmaceutical companies must adopt innovative chemical and supply chain processes. Greater steps and responsibility must be taken by pharmaceutical companies to enact the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations' (EFPIA) declaration for a greater "commitment to take actions in the areas where we can make a difference in order to reduce the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment".

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