ESG in Biopharma: Green Innovation Takes Time, Makes Measurable Impact

In the quest for sustainability, the biopharmaceutical industry is increasingly aligning its research and development efforts with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles. This shift towards green innovation is not merely a trend but a fundamental change in how companies approach the creation and delivery of life-saving therapies. Sustainability in biopharma is a multifaceted endeavor, encompassing everything from reducing carbon footprints to enhancing resource efficiency and minimizing waste. It's a journey that mirrors the broader societal move towards environmental stewardship, but with the added complexity of maintaining the highest standards of patient safety and product efficacy.

The inception of AeroSafe Global’s cold chain container re-use program was a service innovation born more than ten years ago. Its reason for being was to make it more practical and affordable for drug manufacturers and distributors to invest in high performance thermal packaging for their clinical breakthroughs. The first re-use adopters understood and were aligned to its multiple value streams: a smaller warehouse footprint, reliable product protection, and environmental soundness.

As AeroSafe has matured the re-use program operationally, market drivers continue to help influence adoption. Factors such as new temperature controlled clinical therapies and classes, a regulatory movement away from Styrofoam, and ongoing pressure for big pharma to improve metrics related to ESG encourage interest. Meanwhile, AeroSafe continues to explore innovative approaches to solve pervasive problems related to the handling of temperature-sensitive medicines. As we implement real-time temperature monitoring for increased patient safety and data modeling applications for enhanced efficiency, our biopharma customers are accelerating their own efforts to operate more sustainably.

Measurable, meaningful impact of innovation

In the ESG realm, pharmaceutical manufacturers are focused on progress to reduce carbon outputs, particularly as time marches closer to self-imposed deadlines that once felt quite far off into the future. Currently most carbon emissions in the broader life sciences industry fall under Scope 3, occurring outside the direct control of organizations, laying primarily with suppliers and distributors.

As innovations such as the re-use program move into an early majority phase, hallmarked by influence garnered on the success of earlier adopters, the timing is serendipitous to help achieve Scope 3 goals. Consider the estimated annual impact of 165,400 shipments supported by the re-use program:

  • A 66% reduction in carbon emissions when compared to single-use packaging. This 3.6 million kg savings is equivalent to more than 782 cars coming off the road for an entire year.
  • An 79% reduction in water needed during manufacturing. This additional 4.2 million gallons of water could fill 6.3 Olympic sized pools.
  • A 64% reduction in energy that translates to 13.6 million kWh, enough to power nearly 1238 U.S. homes for a year.
  • A 89% reduction in landfill utilization. This 1.5 million kg of avoidance is the same as the weight of over 394K cubic feet of landfill avoided.

Next-generation ideas take root

The appetite for green innovation across the pharmaceutical landscape is significant. Though many approaches and applications being looked at are early on and grounded with innovators, the potential impact for achieving sustainability goals is promising assuming they diffuse to the broader market. The following are just three samples of pharmaceutical leaders pushing the innovation envelope around ESG:

In late 2023, GSK announced that it was looking to start Phase III clinical trials of a low carbon version of its Ventolin (salbutamol) inhaler. The popular inhaler is used by 35 million patients; its existing propellant is estimated to account for about half of GSK’s carbon footprint. If the new propellant technology proves successful, the company estimates that it can potentially reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 90%.

AstraZeneca also made headlines in 2023 when it announced an energy initiative to switch to biogas produced from cow manure in an effort to cut carbon emissions at its U.S. manufacturing sites. AstraZeneca has been aiming to reduce its Scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions by 98% by 2026 (from a 2015 baseline). With this new approach, the company hopes to be producing an amount of energy equivalent to that which could heat nearly 18,000 U.S. homes annually.

And while 2023 was a banner year for Novo Nordisk due to its success with Ozempic, the company has been working on an initiative around the repurposing of plastic from its insulin injectors. Roughly 600 million of the pens are manufactured each year and they are primarily comprised of plastic. Understanding that these pens can be challenging to dispose of so they often end up in landfills, the company is embarking upon a pen “take back” program. Partnering with a Danish design firm, Novo Nordisk launched a proof-of-concept program that has demonstrated plastic from its pens can be repurposed into useful items: office chairs.

Though concern continues to rise around the effects of climate change with many ideas on how to slow global warming, there is shared consensus that innovation is required. A variety of factors are required for innovation to take hold, yet it all starts with visionary thinking about new and better ways of behaving. Re-use was once a fairly radical idea; it is now a mature service adopted by 45 of the largest life science companies, most of whom are pioneering their own green innovation poised to drive positive environmental impact. The journey towards a greener future is complex and challenging, yet the progress made thus far is a testament to the power of innovation to drive positive change.

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