EMD Millipore: Giving and Receiving Single-Use Systems

A talk with sustainability manager Johanna Jobin about the company's new product recycling initiative.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

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There’s been an ongoing discussion in the industry as to whether the use of single-use equipment and systems is more environmentally friendly than the use of stainless steel. There’s a growing consensus (and some data behind it) that believes single-use is more sustainable. One sticking point has been the disposal of disposables. “It’s such a visible thing to operators,” says Johanna Jobin, the company’s sustainability manager. “They’re naturally concerned about throwing out these products.” Neither landfills nor incineration are ideal options.

Thus, EMD Millipore is working with five large biopharma companies to launch a “takeback and recycling” program for used disposable filters and other components. A third-party vendor assists in retrieving and transporting used products to recycling facilities. Recyclables are reprocessed and repurposed into other plastic items such as pallets, Jobin says. Non-recyclable components are sent to a cement kiln and blended with other materials to be used as an alternative fuel source.

It’s a win-win when a supplier can help a customer to achieve sustainability goals, Jobin says. “We wanted to make it as simple as possible to avoid any disruption to their business.” For example, she says, no sorting or separating is required of operators or janitorial staff—the only condition is that the products placed in recycling bins have not been used in hazardous processes.

EMD Millipore plans to expand the program to the entire U.S. soon, then to its other key global markets. What follows is our interview with Jobin:

PhM: Do you agree with the perception that single-use systems are, in general, more environmentally friendly than their stainless steel counterparts? Does the product takeback recycling program help to solidify that argument?

J.J.: In the world of sustainability, and of course through the continued use of life cycle assessments, I would say it depends. There are clear benefits of single-use systems to the end-user, from lower risk of contamination, to reduced cleaning and validation requirements, to increased flexibility. With reduced cleaning requirements during the use phase of the produce life cycle, there is automatically a reduction in energy, water and chemicals use. But the full product life cycle environmental impacts from both single-use and stainless steel systems are not typically clear.

At EMD Millipore, we conducted a comprehensive LCA study comparing the relative environmental impacts of single-use and traditional systems used for the preparation, filtration and storage of buffer and media solutions on a clinical scale. Using either single-use or traditional systems, production of buffer solutions consumes a considerable amount of energy (e.g. two hundred 500L batches of buffer consumes approximately 605,000 megajoules of energy, enough to heat 14 homes for one year). This study found that single-use systems have comparable environmental impacts compared to the traditional systems.

The LCA revealed that two areas—material production and manufacture of single-use products—can have significantly larger carbon footprints.  Transportation of the product to the end-user also has a significant carbon footprint when the products are shipped by air. For example, 48% of our single-use systems life cycle carbon footprint resulted from the electricity and natural gas use during the bag manufacturing and system assembly processes. The LCA identified the energy used by clean room HVAC systems as a key opportunity for improvement.

So our LCA work revealed that most of the opportunities for improving the environmental performance of single-use systems reside with the manufacturer while many of the efficiencies that can be achieved with traditional, single-use systems are under the end-user’s control. And as a manufacturer of single-use products, we feel we have a responsibility to identify and pursue sustainable options. As we make strides in green manufacturing or supply chain management, we will further reduce the environmental impacts of disposables so that there will be clearer evidence of the sustainability between single-use and stainless, traditional systems.

Our LCA further revealed that the disposal of single-use products is one of the least significant driving forces contributing to the overall product carbon footprint. But because customers have voiced concerns over the environmental impact of disposing of the plastic in the single-use systems, we conducted a second analysis to model current and alternative end-of-life, disposal scenarios. Our objective was to identify the scenario that can reduce the impacts from single-use disposal. We found that the disposal method with the highest global warming potential is incineration without energy recovery, which represented about 9% of the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions from BMF systems. We were also able to identify that recycling of the products reduced environmental impacts despite the energy used for material transportation as well as the energy associated with the recycling process itself. Recycling of the products resulted in a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional incineration, and a 5% reduction compared to landfilling. That led us to move forward in developing a product take-back and recycling program for our customers.

PhM: How difficult is it for your customers (drug manufacturers) to participate in the program? What kind of employee training is involved, and what activities are needed to maintain the program on their end?

J.J.: In developing this program, we wanted to make it as simple as possible for our customers to get engaged in to avoid any disruption to their business. We partnered with a 3rd party recycling vendor to coordinate the collection, transportation and recycling of the products and to help streamline the overall program. For example, we don’t require any sorting or separating out one type of filter from another. We just ask that any of these products returned through this program are non-hazardous. So customers would need to make sure that these products, typically thrown in the general trash containers destined for incineration, waste-to-energy or landfill, end up in the recycling bin.

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