Earth Day 2023: Invest in Our Planet

As communities around the world prepare to celebrate Earth Day 2023 with tree plantings, park clean-ups, and recycling events, the outlook for our planet has never been more dire. The effects of global warming might be hard to see, but they are indeed happening all around. For starters, 2022 was one of the hottest years recorded since temperature recordkeeping started in the late 1800s. Furthermore, if it seems that floods, fires, and tornadoes are in the news more than ever before, it’s because extreme weather events are in fact on the rise.

In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel of experts appointed by the United Nations, released a report sounding alarm bells that time is running out to prevent disaster from rising global temperatures. Just last month, the group released a follow-up report warning that should our current warming trajectory continue at its current pace, it will only be a matter of years – perhaps less than a decade – before the earth’s temperature rises by 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is the tipping point that scientists have been warning about; once 1.5 is breached, catastrophic events are a foregone conclusion, putting all of humanity at great risk.

Acting Intently to Reduce Carbon

Over the past twenty years, many industries have faced increasing scrutiny around their carbon emissions along with applied pressure to adopt ‘greener’ practices to markedly reduce carbon output. The pharmaceutical industry has sought to assume leadership positions around such ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) matters given that more greenhouse gas is emitted manufacturing medicines than automobiles.

Most of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies have assumed aggressive timelines and plans to achieve net zero carbon standards within the next five to 15 years. Manufacturers are making strides in advancing towards their ambitious goals through a variety of efforts – remediating physical plants through decarbonization projects, adopting continuous manufacturing practices, investing in renewable energy sources, and vetting suppliers for ESG performance have all led to emission reductions.

One area still ripe for attention as a pathway towards a smaller carbon footprint remains the vast and complex pharmaceutical supply chain. It starts with the transportation of raw active ingredients, often sourced from other countries, and ends with a finished product in the hands of patients across every continent.

So, when it comes to packaging, transportation, and distribution of prescription therapies, where is the remaining opportunity to make rapid, tangible progress?

Paradigm and Mindset Shifts

Making big changes often requires seismic shifts and new ways of thinking. For example, the adoption of circular economy practices where practical. In other words, adopting reuse as a replacement for the pervasive take-make-waste mentality. Not only is reuse good for the environment, but it can also be good for the wallet.

Sometimes to understand where the new opportunity lies, it helps to look at other industries. Consider retail coffee shops. In the 1980s, people didn’t drive around with to-go cups of coffee. It used to be that consumers enjoyed their coffee from within ceramic coffee cups while conversing with friends or neighbors in a coffee shop. Eventually, the convenience factor took over and many coffee chains switched to Styrofoam cups to keep drinks hot for customers on the go – great for coffee drinkers, terrible for the environment. Pressure set in to reduce the usage of Styrofoam given its terrible environmental track record. Accordingly, chains switched to paper cups, while others started to offer reusable thermoses for customer purchase for refills, often in the form of a subscription, and at a slight discount.

The pharmaceutical industry can benefit from reusable packaging and shipping vessels similarly. Re-usable shipping containers for both upstream and downstream supply chain activities offer significant benefits around carbon reduction:

  • Less carbon is emitted during manufacturing since a reusable container can be used 50-100 times

  • Less carbon is emitted during transportation since packaging can be optimized for size and weight

It is estimated that, for a medium-sized reusable shipping container, there is 65% less carbon emitted. Now, multiply that across thousands or millions of shipments and the carbon reduction becomes material. On top of the impact on carbon metrics, there is also less water and energy consumed in the manufacturing and movement of these built-to-fit vessels.

Reusable containers are also ideal to outfit with tracking technology – this not only helps with measuring sustainability effects due to greater insight into the experience of containers along the supply chain (location, temperature, condition) but also helps ensure safety that a package has not been adulterated. When packages can be retrieved and refurbished, there is the impetus and ability to outfit them as ‘connected boxes’ to gather real-world evidence for ongoing improvement in distribution processes. Consider a shipping lane that reveals itself to be problematic for delays – if this is adding time and carbon during transportation, it should be replaced.

PS: Patients Care About ESG

Custom packaging also offers pharma an opportunity to talk to end-users, pharmacists, doctors, and patients about their efforts to be more sustainable. A 2021 survey of patient groups on pharmaceutical ESG efforts found that 55% of groups did not know about ESG activities, down six percent from the year prior. Programs and results are often detailed in annual reports and industry meetings but fail to reach patients who want to know that the companies making their medications care and act accordingly about the world in which we all live.

Once again, it can be helpful to examine how other industries are promoting sustainability efforts. For example, some retailers like Amazon, Nordstrom, and Nike have begun printing sustainability messaging on their packaging. Additionally, Chipotle has started surfacing ESG statistics to customers during the mobile ordering experience.

Earth Day always creates a dialogue around how to think and act in ways that are better for the environment – but one day a year of green thinking isn’t enough to stave off environmental disasters from manmade climate change. Pharmaceutical companies looking to drastically reduce carbon outputs have a massive opportunity in front of them by way of robust, reusable shipping containers. Reuse reduces the utilization of natural resources, leads to lower carbon emissions, and gives a platform to showcase tangible ESG messages to patients who want to know more about what big pharma is doing in this arena.

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