Sustainability in Pharma: How Does it Measure Up?

No expense is too high to test, develop, and distribute a drug thoroughly. After all, we are talking about the health and well-being of humans. 

Despite the appearance of drugs as small, easy to mass produce, and relatively inexpensive, developing, testing, and making a drug takes a lot of time, resources, and energy. 

As more and more people are getting concerned about the climate implications of mass production of goods worldwide, pharma and its mighty industrial potential have not gone unnoticed, either. 

In this article, we will examine sustainability in pharma and whether pharmaceutical companies are squandering a bunch of energy and resources due to outdated technology or inefficient research and production methods. 

What’s happening in big pharma? 

Whether it’s big pharma or a local pharmaceutical company with big dreams, as long as there’s a production process involved, the question arises – can it be done using fewer resources? 

Then there’s the question of clinical waste, quality of water, managing potentially harmful emissions, and so on. 

Let’s take a look at how pharmaceutical companies have been holding up in this respect in slightly more detail: 

Saving Energy 

There can be no real talk of sustainability in pharma if we’re not including saving energy. 

While making small white and red pills may seem like an easy enough, low-energy process, the time and energy required to make drugs is, in reality, a major factor in the production costs. 

To make high-quality drugs, the ingredients need to be cooled, heated, air-dried, humidified, the list goes on. The number of machines used for these purposes is staggering, as spray machines, advanced super-sensitive pressure regulators, and vacuum pumps require considerable energy to run well. 

For this reason, more and more pharmaceutical companies are turning to alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, or even ocean wave-generated electricity – depending on where the premises of the pharma company in question are. 

Saving Water 

In addition to using whopping amounts of energy, pharmaceutical companies also use quite a lot of water. 

This should come as no surprise since virtually every step of the way during the development and testing of a new drug, massive amounts of water are used daily. Whether it’s highly-purified water or water of lesser quality, many pharma’s sustainability advocates think that much of the water can be repurposed and reused. 

Enhanced efficiency in using and reusing water in pharma can be achieved in several ways. 

First, reducing the amount of water necessary for different processes can be a great start. An ongoing effort to recycle and later reuse the water at different intervals throughout the production process can further chip away another chunk of water consumption. 

Secondarily, pharmaceutical companies can join initiatives and programs to collect rainwater and reduce the amount of water used from the pipes. 

Lastly, getting on board a project that invests in sustainable water management elsewhere is also an indirect way to reduce the water consumption levels in your community. 

Waste Reduction & Management 

While energy and water are used in the production process itself, after everything’s been completed, there’s always a pile of waste left. 

Pharmaceutical waste is not just empty pill casings and bent-out-of-shape syringes. Solvents used in making the chemicals necessary in drug production represent the lion’s share of the waste left after the long drug production and testing process. 

The waste produced within a single year in a single company can be staggering, with massive implications for the environment. In particular, this refers to the amount of contaminated soil. For example, a single company called Roche saw a steady increase in waste in 2016 to a whopping 109,000 metric tonnes of contaminated soil. Over the years, they’ve worked their way down to 60,000 in 2021

It is estimated that pharma companies typically spend up to 5% of their turnover on waste management. Add to that some inefficient waste disposal methods, which can go up to 10%. 

Waste in pharmaceutical settings comes in several forms. 

One of the biggest problems is unused drugs and medications sitting in stock sitting idle in storage. Finding a way to sell these (be it for a smaller price) before the expiration date can be a major way of getting rid of this overproduced commodity and having some of the money returned to you. 

Strategies for carefully separating pharmaceutical solids from packaging can also help you extract some of the valuable content from the leftover stock. Later, you can sell it, reuse it, or simply trash it for a smaller price. 

Emissions Management 

Other than having a major impact on local (as well as global, in broader terms) water quality and energy consumption, not many people know that pharma represents one of the primary air pollutants. 

For example, pharmaceutical companies have 55% higher emissions compared to the automotive industry, which may surprise many. Sustainability in pharma, therefore, also has emissions management as one of its major goals. 

In addition to fossil fuel emissions created during the transportation of pharmaceuticals, pharma companies are also major producers of acid gasses, aerosols, and dust particles, as well as organic compounds, some of which are volatile ‘actives.’ 

For this reason, more and more pharma institutions are looking to reinvest some revenue toward improving their emissions footprint. While it may be only partially possible to reach full sustainability in pharma regarding harmful gas emissions, working towards reducing these can be a major step in making the entire ginormous pharma industry greener. 

Conclusion 

Whether it’s tackling the problem of too much waste, too many pills sitting idly in stock, wasteful production processes, or too many harmful emissions coming from otherwise advanced labs – sustainability in pharma is a concept that’s here to stay. 

Reducing the harmful effects of the production itself and the amount of energy invested in production can all contribute to making the entire process safer, more reliable, and considerably less wasteful.

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