Sustainability in pharma: a matter of cooperation

Jan. 9, 2024
How equipment suppliers can help increase sustainability in the pharma industry

Sustainability and climate protection are not only dominating public discourse; they are also influencing the way we think about pharmaceutical production processes. While new drugs dramatically increase patients’ life expectancy, prices for groundbreaking therapies regularly soar to new heights, and resource consumption considerably outstrips other industries.

Many pharma manufacturing companies are currently rethinking their processes with a strong focus on sustainable aspects. What can drug manufacturing companies do to become more sustainable — and how can technology providers help them to achieve their ambitious goals? 

 High cost and sustainability pressure 

The pharma industry is a sector of extremes. With around 20,000 companies, it not only has a significant global presence, but its impact in terms of both sales and emissions is also considerable. According to a study by McMaster University, the pharma industry produced around 50 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per-million-U.S-dollar sales in 2015, with global sales of $96 billion. The industry's carbon emissions even significantly exceed those of the automotive industry by 55%.

The pressure on pharma manufacturers is all the greater: lifesaving medicines must reach the market in high quality and within specific timeframes, while the required processes for market supply should generate significantly fewer emissions. This balancing act calls for lower-emission technologies, which have set off a race for innovative strategies in the industry. Eighty percent of the largest companies in the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) want to reduce their emissions as far as possible or even achieve CO2 neutrality

Key market players are also aiming high outside the association. Roche, for example, envisages halving its carbon footprint by 2029. Bayer aims to achieve zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. So does Novo Nordisk, but five years earlier: according to the company’s plans, greenhouse gas emissions are to approach zero by 2045. Boehringer Ingelheim, on the other hand, aims to achieve CO2 neutrality in its operations (Scope 1 and 2) by 2030. While the approaches are different, a common vision is clear — with extensive consequences, not only for the manufacturing companies themselves. 

 The key role of technology providers 

This also impacts the players in the second or third line: contract manufacturers and technology providers. Scope 1 emissions of pharma manufacturing companies include so-called 'direct' emissions, i. e. those caused by operating things they own or control. According to the World Economic Forum, direct emissions “can be a result of operating machinery to make products, drive vehicles, or just heat buildings and powering computers.” Scope 2 deals with energy purchased by the company itself, while Scope 3 includes other indirect emissions related to a company's value chain, and which can be caused by business travels, commuting, waste disposal, or the use of sold products. 

Technology providers play a key role in the pharma industry’s sustainability strategy since equipment emissions are included in the carbon footprints of all pharmaceutical manufacturing companies. Given its longevity, equipment usually contributes to overall emissions over several decades. One of the biggest levers for CO2 reduction is therefore with the technology providers themselves: by continuously optimizing their machines and developing new, more energy-efficient solutions, they can help pharma manufacturing companies achieve their sustainability goals. 

Fields of action 

Calculations of carbon footprints, science-based targets, or sustainability reporting are also on the agendas of both contract manufacturers and technology providers. Assessments by agencies such as EcoVadis, which rate companies on various sustainability criteria, confirm that they act sustainably and in accordance with international standards. Certificates also help technology providers to position themselves as environmentally-conscious, facilitating the dialogue with like-minded organizations on the pharmaceutical production side. 

Participating in platforms such as CDP (formerly known as Carbon Disclosure Project) or the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi) further increases transparency and set clear, publicly available targets for improvement. Technology suppliers disclose their own emissions and carbon footprint. Along with the technology, its market price and total cost of ownership (TCO), the equipment’s emissions have become crucial for purchasing decisions. 

Calculating the carbon footprint 

There are further fields of action for technology suppliers. For example, software-based CO2 analyses are establishing themselves as useful tools among leading equipment manufacturers. Processing and packaging equipment generates emissions that can be quantified and interpreted over the entire life cycle of the machinery. So-called life cycle analyses (LCA) can provide valuable data. On the one hand, it helps pharma companies to make targeted investment decisions for equipment in order to achieve their own reduction goals. On the other hand, machine manufacturers can use the data to identify the potential for future technological optimization at an early stage. 

The most important parameters of the footprint calculation include released thermal energy, electrical power, compressed air, and other media. A profound analysis, however, needs to take many more parameters into account. They include the average service life of the equipment, but also the times for commissioning, heating up tools, and performing maintenance activities, as well as downtimes. Moreover, the impact of packaging materials on emissions can also be calculated.  

Sterilization tunnels as example 

One of the most energy-intensive processes in the pharma industry is the use of sterilization tunnels. They are crucial for maintaining the sterility of containers and significantly contribute to product safety. According to LCA analyses, typically more than 90% of all carbon emissions of the sterilization tunnel occur during usage. Materials rank second highest, while the equipment’s end-of-life amounts to less than one percent of the emissions during the machine’s entire life cycle. This data not only helps pharma manufacturers to see where they can save energy. It also provides the basis for concrete recommendations from technology providers, as the following example illustrates. 

Depending on its operating state, the sterilization tunnel uses different amounts of energy. This provides several levers for more ecological operations without compromising quality or validation. With a length of several meters, the tunnel consumes up to 15% more energy during heating than during operation. Changing the operating state offers potential for savings: many drug manufacturing companies keep their tunnels ready for operation, i. e. in high-level standby mode, for very long periods of time to reduce heating energy — even if they only use them for a few hours per day. They only switch to low-level standby with less power consumption on weekends. 

Significant energy and water savings 

This operating mode ensures sterile conditions at a temperature of 130 degrees Celsius. However, the tunnel must be heated up to 350 degrees Celsius again for regular production. LCA analyses show that low-level standby is also possible during weekday downtimes without jeopardizing sterilization quality. Compared to high-level standby, manufacturing companies can save up to 10% of electricity – without having to requalify the system.

This specific example helps pharma manufacturers to rethink their operating strategy in view of more sustainable processes. The entire LCA analysis also provides important data for the equipment manufacturer, which can be used to optimize its own technology in the long term. 

Knowing the carbon footprint of a machine can also lead to the decision for an alternative production process. For example, pharmaceutical companies can use both a membrane-based and a distillation process to produce WFI (water for injection) for parenteral applications. Analyses show that cold WFI units produce up to 90% fewer CO2 emissions than the established hot processes. Even WFI from cold processes that use hot storage reduces emissions by more than 40 percent compared to hot WFI. Furthermore, software updates are able to reduce energy and water consumption by up to 90% for distillation units in standby mode. 

Alternative packaging materials 

Downstream processes also offer savings potential, first and foremost through innovative, alternative packaging materials. Liquid pharmaceuticals require glass and single-use plastic in primary packaging, leaving hardly any room for change. However, recyclable and/or biodegradable solutions are playing an increasingly important role in the primary and secondary packaging of solid dosage forms. Blister packs made of paper or recyclable polypropylene (PP), which aim at substituting standard thermoforming films made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), can be used for the primary packaging of tablets and capsules. Cartons are largely used for secondary packaging. 

Packaging technology providers and paper suppliers have been working on solutions that can be successfully used on existing lines for some time. Paper-based push-through blister packs for tablets and capsules, for example, are suitable for nutraceuticals and feature a barrier as well as a heat-sealable layer. Instead of developing new technologies for packaging processes — and thus generating new emissions — technology providers enable savings thanks to easily convertible line concepts.

Of course, innovations are just as important. A broad portfolio of services, from material analysis and packaging development to testing in dedicated development centers, fosters cooperation and will continue to produce pioneering packaging materials and machine concepts in the future. 

Laying the foundations of a sustainable future together 

In view of current developments, the pharma industry might achieve climate neutrality within the next two decades. This certainly accounts for companies that are already pursuing a clear sustainability strategy. In the long term, this trend will include other players besides big pharma, such as contract manufacturers and smaller manufacturing companies.

Technology partners who have already invested in their own sustainability strategy at an early stage will have a leg up on competition with additional energy-saving options and attractive new solutions on the equipment side. By consistently exploring the limits of what is technologically feasible, they create the basis for an innovation-based and thus truly sustainable pharmaceutical environment. 

About the Author

Andreas Mattern | Vice President Strategy & Global Product Management Pharma, Syntegon Technology