Last month’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report sounded alarm bells that unless we all act with urgency to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels will rise faster and higher than previously estimated. The report revealed that, “The world will hit one-and-a-half degrees warming much earlier than expected, possibly the middle of 2034,” leading to more frequent extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.
Given this bleak outlook, it is reassuring that many pharma manufacturers have already committed themselves to ambitious environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives in the coming decade. For many companies in this sector, achieving and demonstrating carbon neutrality is at the top of this list.
The green cold chain
For therapies that require strict temperature control during transit, reliance on expedited shipping drives cost and increases emissions. When the therapy reaches its clinical destination, the packaging that kept the payload protected has a good chance of ending up in a landfill, particularly if EPS like styrofoam was used for thermal protection. This only adds insult to environmental injury. With thousands of various medicines needing to reach millions of patients in every corner of the world, the pharmaceutical supply chain is understandably complex. But as consumers increasingly embrace adoption of reusable packaging, pharma manufacturers have a significant, attainable opportunity to make measurable progress in reducing CO2 emissions from supply chain activity.
Drug manufacturers that have adopted circular economy practices as part of their distribution strategy are today experiencing material sustainability improvements such as water and energy conservation, less landfill waste and reduced CO2 emissions. Consider the Covid-19 vaccine. In 2021 so far more than 4.4 billion doses of vaccine have been distributed. Had this distribution been grounded in reusable thermal packaging, the calculated sustainability savings would have been non-trivial:
- 480 million kilograms of CO2 emissions reduced.
- 12 million kilograms of landfill eliminated.
- 4 million megawatt hours of energy saved.
- 1.36 billion gallons of water conserved.
Smart logistics, smarter packaging
A reusable shipper that ultimately is returned for refurbishment can act as a conduit of information delivery and collection. From connected packaging that can be leveraged to drive a user to product literature on dosing, to the recovery of IoT devices monitoring and relaying the real-world experience of the shipment, a supply chain grounded in sustainability can deliver benefits beyond cost savings and ESG improvements. For example, the establishment of a cold chain visibility control tower giving real-time and actionable insight as to the location, status and condition of each package in order to identify and intervene as needed around bottlenecks, quality concerns and even inventory needs.
Further, as treatment modalities such as cell therapy and personalized medicine continue to proliferate, the need for cold chain protection only expands. Many of these will distribute directly to the patient as new care models emerge in response to Covid’s negative impact on access. Consumers are demonstrating comfort returning containers for reuse, though some need assistance. Opening lines of communication with patient-users reflect another, and unexpected, opportunity for manufacturers. This is the reimagined courtesy call that most patients and their caregivers are happy to take since it has to do with personal well-being: confirming the product arrived, confirming condition and initiating the container return (which requires no more effort than leaving the emptied container on the doorstep for retrieval).
The time is now
Though the IPCC report was sobering in terms of illuminating the climate damage human activity has already created, taking action to cut greenhouse gas emissions now could stabilize or slow rising temperatures. The pharmaceutical industry has a simultaneous challenge and opportunity before them. Even by electing to adopt re-use for thermal controlled therapies only, the reduction of dangerous gases is material enough to fuel marked reductions in CO2 for the ESG bottom line of the entire enterprise. This may represent the “low hanging fruit” for the biopharma industry, with upside around brand reputation, including positive consumer sentiment for eco-consciousness at this critical inflection point.
About the Author
Jay McHarg is CEO of AeroSafe Global.