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Like every industry, the pharmaceuticals industry is affected by, and responsible to, the whole of society. All who work in pharma are familiar, for example, with the duty to ensure that medications are safe and effective before they reach pharmacy shelves. But pharmaceuticals manufacturers and distributors have other duties as well, such as mitigating their impact on the environment to ensure the health and safety of future generations as well as our own.


The pharma sector creates an enormous amount of pollution and waste–pharmaceuticals manufacture emits more greenhouse gases than even auto manufacture and testing. Reducing these emissions is an urgent concern at every step of the supply chain.


For example, the sourcing of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) is a very petroleum-heavy process. When manufacturers synthesise raw materials and solvents in the lab, they frequently use chemicals derived from the same sources as fossil fuels–sources which are both limited and harmful to the environment. The impact of this sourcing is rarely calculated in detail.


Some emerging biotech labs are experimenting with new, more-sustainable synthesis processes inspired by chemical reactions that occur in nature.


But manufacturing advances alone can’t fix the industry’s reliance on petroleum. The drug development process can take as long as twenty years, and passes through a number of energy-intensive sub-sectors. After initial development in the lab, a new drug goes through pre-clinical and clinical research, followed by regulatory review and post-market safety monitoring. Streamlining is necessary for all the physical buildings, institutions, and technologies involved in these processes in order to maximise energy efficiency and deliver medicines to a post-carbon world.


Once new drugs reach the market and achieve FDA approval, they’re typically mass produced via a method called batch manufacturing, where one batch of pills or medicines goes through each stage of the manufacturing process in sequence, one after another, often in a single location. Manufacturers are now experimenting with more efficient alternatives to batch manufacturing, such as a staggered “continuous” approach where slightly smaller batches in different production stages are manufactured simultaneously, maximising the use of the resources involved at all stages (like climate control).


The use of green energy in pharma received a massive boost last year with the launch of the Energize programme, aimed at increasing pharma companies’ access to renewable energy. Many giants have not only signed up to it, but also set ambitious targets for themselves, with  Pfizer aiming to have its North American operations powered by 100% solar energy by the end of 2023.


Another major carbon cost in pharma is the use of refrigerated vehicles to transport temperature-sensitive products, known as cold chain shipping. Greener fuels being developed for these vehicles include hydrotreated vegetable oil, which cuts greenhouse emissions by 90% compared with diesel. The materials used to keep the packages cool are also a key factor, with firms beginning to transition to “active packaging” with reusable battery-powered cooling units rather than “passive packaging” with throwaway plastics, cardboard and dry ice.


Pharma companies are showing genuine motivation–often tinged with scientific curiosity–to solve the puzzle of achieving net zero. But greener technologies and methods must be applied throughout the value chain to make a real difference to the industry’s environmental impact.

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