Now more than ever, it seems like the world is continuously changing. In positive news, this year has seen humpback whales leaping off Australia’s threatened species list, the first fully complete human genome has been published, and JWST has dazzled the world with extraordinary images of our universe. Despite these advances, 2022 has also been a devastating year for the Earth’s environment: we have witnessed one of the hottest Julys ever recorded, huge droughts, wildfires, and flooding.
These environmental changes are worrisome for our planet and for public health, as there is a growing connection between the two. But what are some adjustments industries can make to ease the burden of change?
For companies, one way is to create and develop options that can help reduce environmental and climate change impacts. In the scientific and pharmaceutical industries, there has been an increase in conversations about so-called green chemistry. Green chemistry focuses on reducing the environmental impact of chemistry through new designs and processes, with the aim of reducing any unintentional harm to humans or the planet. There are 12 principles that the American Chemical Society outlined in 1998. These are broad and include preventing waste, using safer solvents and reaction conditions, and increasing energy efficiency.
Across the globe, pharmaceutical companies are advancing green chemistry initiatives as part of their environment, social, and governance (ESG) strategies, which are designed to help address global issues like climate change. Another strategy many companies are focusing on is reducing their carbon footprint. This is a big buzzword that has been around for the last few decades, but essentially it refers to the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from company and value chain operations.
Many companies are trying to find unique ways to reduce their carbon footprint beyond green chemistry. For example, Iceland hosts one of the world’s largest carbon capture plants. It is called Orca, and while it may not be the next exciting theme park to put on your adventure list for a whale of a time, it does host many important machines. These machines can extract 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Such systems have actually been gaining traction in recent years, and other companies are planning on capturing carbon dioxide from the air and recycling it into a carbon-neutral fuel in the near future.
Talking about recycling, there is a Dallas airport that is using leftover cooking oil from over 200 restaurants and turning it into “sustainable aircraft fuel”. This change could lower the environmental impact of over 150,000 daily flights worldwide. Luckily, the refined fuel is scentless, so you are not going to come off the plane smelling like Eau De French Fry.
Ocean cleaning voyages collect plastic they find in the ocean to improve the marine environment. In the future, they could be powered by the very plastic that they collect, as it is turned into oil in an onboard conversion system, which could then power the ship.
These are great examples of actions companies in different sectors are taking.
So, as suppliers to the healthcare sector to drive positive impact, what are pharmaceutical companies doing to reduce their carbon footprint?
Some companies in the pharmaceutical (and others sectors) are committed to achieving a Net-Zero Standard by 2040. This could be done in many ways, and it will likely take a multi-pronged approach and innovative ideas to accomplish. Application of the green chemistry principles is just one tool companies can use to help reduce their carbon footprints.
One example of how green chemistry can be applied involves the synthetic hormone progesterone. Progesterone is a hormone that occurs in the body and is usually released by the ovaries. When there are changes in progesterone levels, there are often changes in the menstrual cycle, and this hormone is necessary for fertilized egg implantation and maintaining pregnancy.
Progesterone is a key ingredient that is found in certain medications. While it can be made in the body, it can also be made in the laboratory. Through the application of green chemistry principles, certain companies are changing the components involved to help reduce the carbon footprint of the medicine. For example, creating the hormone out of plant sterols. This change to the process has reduced greenhouse gas emissions, the use of hazardous materials, and overall waste.
Another way to cut down on the carbon footprint of products and processes is to apply learning and data of process efficiency gained from benchmarking to enable the effective design of new medications.
One example of this involves an atopic dermatitis treatment. Atopic dermatitis (atopic eczema) is a condition more common in children, in which the skin can become dry, itchy, and cracked. In some medications, enzymatic processes have helped reduce the process mass intensity by 68 percent and seen a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions. The new medications also saw the reduction of hazardous substances, replaced high-impact solvents with lower-impact alternatives, and reduced overall waste.
Some companies are also investigating their manufacturing processes to help make them more sustainable. Often pharmaceutical company products are produced in multi-product facilities with comprehensive cleaning and validation steps that occur between processes. This method is called batch manufacturing and it requires multiple discrete steps. After each step, the production stops, which can increase the processing time.
Continuous manufacturing is a different manufacturing process, and as the name implies, it is continuous. This is a new manufacturing technology, which requires re-validation of processes to enable them to be done in this way and may not be feasible with some products. Continuous manufacturing allows companies to make medications more quickly, in a way that can help reduce the manufacturing footprint, be more energy efficient, and generate less waste.
Continuous manufacturing has actually been successful in solid oral dose medications and for oncology medications. It has significantly reduced the processing time and variability and produced faster technology transfers.
On the whole, some pharmaceutical companies are at the forefront of innovation as they continuously work to improve their manufacturing processes and adopt novel technologies to lower their climate impact. We should keep an eye on the future to see what potential this technology may unlock.
To learn more about green chemistry, click here.
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