Making pharma supply chains more sustainable

Making pharma supply chains more sustainable
© iStock/luza studios

Nico Ros, Co-Founder and CTO of SkyCell discusses how to make pharma supply chains more sustainable.

As businesses everywhere look for ways to reduce their carbon footprint, it’s logical that many will have to focus on improving their supply chains. According to the World Economic Forum, around 40% of these supply chains’ emissions could be reduced with already available solutions.

This is especially pertinent for pharmaceutical companies. Historically, the industry has accepted an average loss rate on shipments of pharma products that results in millions of doses of potentially life-saving medicines going to waste each year. On top of this, it has been slow to adopt reusable solutions; pharma companies still send millions of pallets, boxes, and cooling materials such as gel packs to refuse after just one use.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that, given its overriding attitude to wastage and single-use products and packaging, the pharmaceutical industry’s emission intensity is 55% higher than the automotive industry’s. Recent research by My Green Lab has shown that the value chain emissions (Scope 3) by pharma companies can be as much as five times higher compared to their emissions from in-house operations and energy consumption. Bayer, as one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, reported its Scope 1 and 2 emissions totalled around four million tons per year whereas their Scope 3 emissions were as much as 12-15 million tons annually. This goes some way to explaining why the global healthcare industry emits two gigatons of CO2 emissions every year – the equivalent of being the fifth-largest emitting country in the world.

Pharma companies should therefore look to their supply chains to find ways of more efficiently managing their inventories, as well as significantly reducing their CO2 footprint.

Recent developments in the pharma industry

Two relatively recent medical developments have had an impact on the way pharmaceutical products are transported.

The first is biologics, currently the fastest growing sector of the pharmaceutical market. Unlike conventional drugs, which are chemically synthesised, biologics are, as their name suggests, extracted from biological sources, with examples including hormones, gene and cellular therapies, and monoclonal antibody products. The other, of course, is the widespread adoption since 2020 of mRNA vaccines, used to prompt an immune response to COVID-19.

With biologics, however, anywhere between 4-12% would typically be compromised in transport. Not only are pharma companies required to increase their inventories to hedge against this, but they also incurred costs in investigating, testing, and reporting on temperature excursions.

And at the height of the pandemic, the global pharma supply chain was faced with handling the rapid shipping of millions of vaccines in safe, secure and, importantly, temperature-controlled containers.

Maintaining optimum conditions

In both cases, the pharma industry was charged with finding ways of shipping these medicines in optimum conditions and at optimum temperatures to preserve their integrity. Often, though, the steps taken to maintain the correct temperature of these medicines from the point of manufacture through to delivery had a significant environmental impact.

Extra energy is required, for instance, to operate the transport refrigeration units (TRUs) needed to maintain a controlled temperature. These TRUs are responsible for up to 95% of all particulate matter and 40%of all nitrogen oxide emissions from a modern refrigerated vehicle, and the average diesel trailer TRU produces around eight tonnes of tailpipe CO2 per year – equivalent to four average UK cars.

Ensuring the safe transportation of temperature-sensitive biologics and vaccines is essential, but with the growing number of temperature-sensitive pharma products needing to be transported around the world, traditional methods not utilising technology and data are simply not sustainable. More environmentally friendly and technologically driven alternatives are required.

Reuse and recycle

There is a way we can tackle sustainability before transportation. One such solution is what is now being coined the ‘hybrid’ container – a smart container able to monitor and regulate the temperature of its contents in real-time. In addition to their smart capabilities, which reduce CO2 emissions by mitigating the additional energy requirements of traditional TRUs. These containers are designed to be reused, minimising waste and single-use solutions that are so often sent directly to landfill. This reusability is an important consideration for the sustainability of an industry which, for too long, has relied on single-use products and packaging. After all, in the long run, the cheapest material will always be one you can reuse. The pharma industry is seeing that changes like this, early in the supply chain, can have an immediate and decisive impact on businesses’ sustainability efforts.  There’s also plenty more room for improving sustainability in this way, extending to the pallets containers are shipped on, or even the medical devices themselves, like syringes that deliver medicine to patients. It’s no surprise there has been considerable uptake of these kinds of technologies –  not only do they make an immediate impact on sustainability, but they’re good for the bottom line too.

Sustainable future

The pharmaceutical industry’s supply chain has a history of wasteful and unsustainable behaviour. Growing environmental concerns, from consumers, governments, and shareholders, have forced businesses to consider ways to minimise their carbon footprint, and the impact of supply chains has become a prime focus.

Just recently industry giants such as GSK have announced net-zero goals which commit to reducing their emissions. By working directly with suppliers along the value chain, pharma companies can better understand and tackle Scope 3 emissions. Reducing the reliance on carbon-based fuels is one solution, electrifying delivery fleets, for example, or switching instead to biofuels. But the rising popularity of biologics and the recent urgency of shipping COVID vaccines have added another dimension for consideration – that of safely, efficiently, and sustainably ensuring these medicines are delivered at the right temperature to minimise the risk of waste.

By significantly reducing the carbon footprint of traditional means of cooling these products, such as energy-hungry TRUs, while encouraging reuse and recycling, the solutions for more sustainable pharma supply chains exist today. It’s now up to us as an industry to adopt them.

Nico Ros, CTO and Co-founder of SkyCell,


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