On Drug Delivery – Sustainability Q&A

Q1. Why is it even important for pharma to be a sustainable industry? Surely healthcare is so important to people, literally vitally so, that pharma gets a free pass when it comes to its environmental impact?

Ultimately, the purpose of pharmaceuticals is to improve patient health and quality of life. The pharmaceutical industry is a one, and this is particularly true when it comes to its environmental impact. The work our industry does is vital, but nonetheless these operations should be carried out in a responsible way to minimise any potential negative environmental impact. It’s a balancing act but there are ways we can reduce the impact of operations and as an industry we are committed to exploring these options.  

Q2. Looking at the big picture to begin with, what would you say are perhaps three of the most significant “easy wins” / “low hanging fruit”, sources of major environmental impact that pharma can address relatively quickly and readily in order to improve sustainability?

The pharmaceutical industry has been working on environmental issues for a long time. The most significant impact on environment comes from manufacturing pharmaceutical products on a commercial scale. Although systems and governmental regulations are well developed in Europe, the US and Japan, there are still ongoing problems in other markets, particularly in other areas of Asia, where pressure to manage damaging levels of pollution is not as concentrated. 

One particular area of concern is the manufacturing of antibiotics since emissions of the antibiotic compounds can drive antimicrobial resistance. This means taking care of hazardous waste, sewage and emissions remains absolutely critical for the industry. Another area that seems to get less attention is what happens to medicines that have expired or are no longer in high demand. From an environmental perspective, it is important that these unused drugs do not follow the same routes of normal household waste. This is something that could potentially be improved in many parts of the world. It’s important that authorities and governments support the industry in developing processes to help resolve this. 

Q3. A pharma company whose drug delivery partners and CDMOs offer sustainable products, technologies and services will produce more sustainable end products. To what extent do you agree with this statement? And where in particular can drug delivery partners and CDMOs offer that increased sustainability? I’m interested not only in regressive/reductive means of reducing environmental impact, but in particular examples of positive, innovative / technology-based approaches to increasing sustainability; things that allow us to do more, better, more cost effectively AND in a more sustainable manner.

This is something which needs to be carefully balanced. It is important to make sure we do not compromise on the medical efficacy of an end product by altering the way it has been manufactured. That being said, manufacturers should always strive to reduce any environmental impact throughout the manufacturing process and the supply chain, where possible. 

Cooperation between manufacturers of end products and the original suppliers of materials are constantly developing. With this in mind, it is becoming increasingly more popular for the industry to apply a ‘Supplier Code of Conduct’ to a product, to set the boundaries and expectations regarding any sustainability matters.

When it comes to the technical aspects of pharmaceutical production, a lot of focus is being placed on scale and improving the efficiency in manufacturing processes. Improving yields from the processes means there will be less waste, and by optimising scale of production, the overall environmental impact can be reduced significantly. Replacing hazardous materials is also important, new technologies for wastewater treatment and filtering of solvents emissions are constantly emerging making the processes much cleaner. In addition, supply chain practices such as reducing the number of suppliers involved in the production of a product is providing opportunities for reducing transportation which is also beneficial when it comes to reducing the industry’s impact on the environment.

Q4. Where do you think the driving forces/motivation for improving sustainability is coming from? (thinking governments, regulators, also buyers/payers, clinicians, and of course patients? 

Currently, the driving force for exploring greener processes is primarily coming from within the industry itself. This is a direct result of the global focus on improving sustainability, with both governmental regulations and the procurement standards from payors adding pressure for sustainability concerns to be a priority. So far, the attention from patients and healthcare professionals is limited, however this is likely to increase over the coming years. 

Q5. Can you envisage a time where patient (or healthcare professional) treatment preferences could be influenced by how sustainable one option is compared to another? i.e. could sustainability be a product differentiator in competitive markets?
Ultimately medical efficacy should be the top priority and vital medications need to remain readily available. However, there may be a situation where sustainability could be the deciding factor between two brands. In addition, there has also been discussions around potentially introducing payment systems designed to give benefits to the companies that clearly can show advantages from a sustainability point of view and it is likely this will be explored further in the future.

Q6. In addition to regulating to enforce sustainable practices, what role can regulators play in adapting or even relaxing some regulation to enable more sustainable approaches? (The example that made me think of this question is the fact that medical use of polymers is highly regulated, and the use of recycled polymers is pretty much ruled out in device applications. Could that be looked at again to allow the use of recycled polymers in cases where there is low or no risk?)

It is important that we don’t start to mix assessments of safety and medical efficacy with sustainability aspects. Sustainability is vital for pharmaceuticals, but it should not be part of the medical assessment of a product. Patient safety and effective treatment needs to remain our top priority. 

Author biography 
Erik Haeffler, VP of Manufacturing Services and Head of Sustainability at Recipharm 

Erik is the Vice President of Manufacturing Services and the Head of Sustainability at Recipharm. He is responsible for the Group’s sustainability work, as well as its focus on operational and commercial excellence. 

As part of his role, Erik is continuously developing a model for working with multi-site projects and is accountable for operations development across the company, including elements such as project management resources, corporate IS and project/product sourcing decisions.