Unit Operations

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

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.

Engagement and awareness of employees at the manufacturing site is key. Operators inside the manufacturing rooms need to understand that certain filters and products can be placed in the recycling bin in the room vs. the regular trash. The GMP cleaners, or regular janitorial and cleaning staff, also need to be aware to make sure that these products don’t end up in the typical trash compactor, but the appropriate storage container identified for this program, which may be a cubic yard box in the waste sorting room or even blue drums that are being reused. Clearly marked bins, and labels and signage, are being used to help facilitate this process. For many of the customers participating in the pilot program, there is little change to what they have already been doing: all of the waste eventually in ends up in one room or loading dock and instead of the trash bin, they end up in a recycling container.

The employees we have engaged in this pilot program have been enthusiastic to help because by participating in this program, they can actively make a difference and contribute to furthering their company sustainability goals.

PhM: What ultimately happens to the used single-use equipment and systems once they are retrieved from customers? What percentage of the materials or equipment can be recycled and used again?

J.J.: Once enough volume is accumulated at the customer site, the products are then sent to our recycling vendor’s processing facility. The products are disassembled and the recyclable components separated from the non-recyclable items. Recyclable components can eventually be further processed and repurposed into other plastic items such as recycled content plastic pallets. Non-recyclable components will be sent to a cement kiln as part of fuels blending, which offers a significant opportunity for replacing coal with a cleaner fuel source. 

Because of the varying types of filters and assemblies, we achieve different percentages for recovering recyclable components. 60-75% of the overall product weight can be recycled for some filters, while certain assemblies may only get around 40-50% of the overall product weight. As we move forward in this pilot, we hope to achieve efficiencies in making sure we can recycle as much of the material as possible.

PhM: You’re just in the early stages of the takeback program. What challenges or difficulties have you encountered that you didn’t anticipate? When do you anticipate this will be a worldwide program?

J.J.: We are currently implementing this pilot program with 5 customers on the east coast. Soon after, we hope to expand this program so it is nation-wide program across the U.S. We will then look to develop business models for Europe and Asia.

At first, I think customers, and to be honest even our own internal staff, thought that this type of program was unachievable because these filters and other disposables are considered biological waste once they are used. But through engagement of customers, and rolling up our sleeves, we learned that more often that not, the products are already being disposed of as non-hazardous, general waste because they are either sent through a decontamination process or the materials flowing through them are inherently non-hazardous.

Another challenge is that in an ideal scenario, a product take-back program would lead to a full cradle-to-cradle program. This means that materials from the discarded products can be reused into making new products. In an industry that depends on completely sterile environments, this would be an extremely difficult task to achieve, especially for products that encounter the fluid path. But there may be certain components where this could work, but it will take time, as well as buy-in and awareness, for validating any of these opportunities.

One of the opportunities is that many of customers have their own sustainability programs, goals and metrics they are working to meet, much like we are working toward at EMD Millipore. So many customers have goals around waste diversion from landfills or recycling rate goals they are working to meet. One surprising result we found is that this material can comprise a good amount of their overall waste stream. For one customer we found that by participating in this program we can possibly increase their recycling rate by another 5-7%.

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