Therapeutic Dose: The Greening of Pharma

June 14, 2011
Is the greening of pharma merely moss on a stagnant stone?

Recently, we have heard a boatload about “going green” in industry and our private lives. As an Eagle Scout, all that has my stamp of approval. My only fear is that we are attempting too many mini-projects instead of changing our “lifestyles” altogether. While banning incandescent light bulbs has been the law in Europe for several years, we get resistance from “freedom-types” back home. These people won’t be told how to live, so, even if intellectually (strong word for some) they admit it is better for the earth, they aren’t going to be told what to do.

In the U.S., we still compartmentalize—not only businesses, but nationwide as well. It is difficult for us to expect a company (pharma, in our case) to know how to change its mindset when we live in a world of denial. As an example, we embrace electric cars without asking where the electricity is generated. Just because we don’t see the smoke-belching, coal-burning plant doesn’t mean we are being “green.” We are in denial, is what we are.

PepsiCo recently announced that it is reclaiming much of the water from the deep frying of its Frito-Lay chips (potatoes are roughly 85% water) instead of blowing steam into the environment. (If you didn’t know that water is a greenhouse gas, you aren’t “green-aware,” yet.)

They use the reclaimed water for cleaning and such, saving about $1 million on their yearly water bill . . . and helping the world. Frito-Lay is putting 176 all-electric trucks in service in California, Texas, and the Pacific Northwest. This is expected to cut 500,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year while cutting greenhouse emissions by 75% over internal combustion engines. At $3 a gallon (they wish!), this would save $1.5 million a year on fuel and an additional $700,000 annually on maintenance costs.

When I hear of single-use bioreactors (non-petroleum-based plastic?) and such trends in pharma, I am pleased. I was discussing the use of disposables with attendees at a meeting in Berlin last month, and was quite surprised at how much money can be saved. I wish I had my notepad handy during the discussion, but in the neighborhood of 50% savings was not uncommon. A smaller building, using less water (cleaning/sterilization), less heat/cooling, less light, and so forth, is not a minor saving.

It has been already been mentioned that, with PAT/QbD, we will have less waste and fewer OOS samples. That is a nice start, small as it might be. Now, can we get serious about green? I have been privy to many stories about green successes in our industry, but they all seem to have one common theme: the successes were limited and often only at one site. Unlike at Wal-Mart, PepsiCo, and other major manufacturers, pharma’s green efforts seem to come from the bottom-up. The other industries’ initiatives are from the top-down.

I wondered why soap powder, paint, cake mixes and the like could be made so well and seldom without an OOS problem. I was rewarded with an answer by a nice man from GSK in the U.K.: they are low-profit-margin products. “Of course,” I thought to myself, “I should have known.” When I worked at Henkel (in Hoboken, not Germany), if a shipment of surfactant was returned for any reason, the cost of shipping made the second trip into a loss. The margin of any profit was small enough to turn a second trip to a customer into a “giveaway.” That meant we paid attention to each batch, since we couldn’t afford any OOS batches.

Since pharma is a high-margin industry, a few OOS lots are a mere inconvenience. As scary as it may sound to the “big boys,” there are predictions that, within a decade, 90% of all drugs sold in the U.S. will be generic. Now, there’s a low margin business! Perhaps, just perhaps, when their backs are against the wall, Big Pharma execs will deign to save the environment, er, uh, I mean save money. As my long-time readers may remember, I am a fan of irony. The irony here is that (my money is on it) pharma execs will be honored for being “green” long before most CEOs from companies outside pharma that went green decades earlier.

But then, isn’t that America? People who err and are rehabilitated are praised more than those who never strayed in the first place. Amazing how an ankle-bracelet can suddenly make you a good citizen. Whatever! I guess it’s better than never going green.

About the Author

Emil W. Ciurczak | Contributing Editor