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How Biopharma Can Move the Needle on its Environmental Impact

Recognizing that plastics are still crucial for biopharmaceutical development, labs can take a circular approach to product design and explore advanced recycling methods to improve industry sustainability

Ryan Walker

Ryan Walker is sustainability leader at Cytiva.

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Plastic is an integral resource to advancing and accelerating therapeutics. The supply chains of many biopharma companies rely on single-use technology for the clean, efficient, and flexible production and delivery of therapeutics. 

According to two life cycle assessments1,2 commissioned by Cytiva, single-use technologies have the environmental advantage over traditional stainless-steel manufacturing. They require less energy and eliminate water and chemicals for cleaning during use. Best of all, single-use technologies enable biopharma companies to change batches much more quickly than with stainless steel.

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Yet, we acknowledge that using plastics contributes to a global problem. It’s essential that the biopharma industry considers its approach on how to use and develop more sustainable solutions. The following examples demonstrate sustainable progress is underway and may inspire lab managers to take the first steps in taking a greener approach to their lab operations.

Adopting a circular approach

Plastic dependence can impact the environment and biodiversity, which is why it's crucial that biopharma companies start introducing circular models into their product design processes. From product updates and new introductions, companies should apply circular thinking to plastics use in their own operations. 

It’s important to make sure sustainability is built into the product life cycle from ideation to end of life to ensure it is a reality. Companies need to implement a framework that engages teams to think of ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle throughout the design process. For example, could recycled plastic be used instead of virgin plastic when sourcing materials? Or could we incorporate modular design to help extend product life? Can the product be recycled at the end of life? If the industry reimagines product design, then our environmental impact will be reduced.

Lab managers should be actively working with their suppliers to understand how they design their products. By taking this approach, lab manager will be aware of their suppliers’ processes and will be in a stronger position to encourage and influence the adoption of a circular design approach. 

Opportunities in mechanical and advanced recycling

Mechanical recycling is the process of turning plastic waste into secondary raw material or products without changing the chemical structure of the material. This process results in less waste being sent to landfills and resources used to produce virgin polymers are reduced, along with greenhouse gas emissions and plastic pollution.

However, most current mechanical recycling solutions cannot accept multiple types of plastic waste or biocontamination. This is why the industry needs to focus on exploring new opportunities to recycle complex plastics used in biopharma manufacturing. 

As interest continues to build in the circular economy, advanced recycling technologies are being developed to meet demand. Advanced recycling enables the transformation of used plastics into new products that can be repeatedly recycled. By turning hard-to-recycle plastics into a reusable resource, this can help create a more sustainable industry and is one way to address the global plastic waste problem. 

Although most of the current advanced recycling solutions are still in their pilot phase, some commercially scaled manufacturing plants are ramping up. There’s limited availability of advanced recycling facilities, which is restricting the speed of implementation. Biopharma companies are inevitably responding and are starting to support academic institutions researching advanced recycling of contaminated plastics. 

For example, in April this year, a research group from The University of Texas at Austin, led by  Hal Alper, PhD, published an article in the journal Nature, which led to an important discovery. They engineered an enzyme variant that digests common plastics found in consumer products like food and beverage packaging, carpet, and textiles. This breakdown occurs over 48 hours. This finding could change the future of plastic and recycling. 

Making sustainable logistics choices to cut costs and CO2 emissions

Smart logistics is another way the industry can reduce its impact on the environment. As the industry grows, production volumes increase, and the transport CO2 impact will inevitably rise. By developing smart logistics by rethinking packaging materials, using more direct and shorter routes, and changing transport modes—biopharma companies can reduce carbon emissions and transportation costs.  

For example, by optimizing package size to product size and using recyclable packaging materials, we will help drive down CO2 impact. We can reduce the distance that products travel with “in region, for region” manufacturing.  

Looking to the future and planning for alternative solutions

Single-use plastics are essential to the development and delivery of life-saving therapeutics and vaccines, and biopharma companies will continue to use them. Therefore, the industry must introduce circular product design, explore opportunities for mechanical and advanced recycling, and make smart logistics choices to drive sustainability.

This journey has begun and it’s encouraging to see how the life sciences industry has come together to prioritize sustainability. The topic is complex, and each action has domino effects, so something as simple as recycling of plastics must be looked at from all environmental and societal angles. In the short-term, customers and suppliers are working on recycling and safe waste management solutions.

The reality is, lab professionals and suppliers must work together as one to tackle the global challenges of plastics, waste management, carbon, and emissions. The planet doesn’t care which company we work for; only that we work to improve. Our purpose as an industry is to keep people healthy, to advance therapeutics. We cannot do that unless we use resources wisely.