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The sustainable supply chain: Delivering better outcomes for patients and the environment


The sustainable supply chain: Delivering better outcomes for patients and the environment


Published European Pharmaceutical Manufacturer magazine

Jay McHarg, CEO of AeroSafe Global, discusses the importance of a sustainable, eco-friendly supply chain, how it’s critical for pharmaceutical companies and how it can play a role in delivering better outcomes for both patients and the environment.

For more than a year the coronavirus dominated headlines and changed the course of direction for nearly all businesses, regardless of size or focus. As the pandemic started to recede, other pertinent issues reemerged demanding our collective attention. Consider climate change. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a significant reduction in global greenhouse gases, but that was only a temporary reprieve. As we returned to our old habits, the existential climate change crisis was still awaiting us.

Blue-chip companies are increasingly called upon to demonstrate their commitment to eco-friendly business practices. This is obvious in the automotive industry with manufacturers such as Volvo committing to all-electric vehicles by 2030, and the food industry wherein late 2020, Chipotle launched its own sustainability calculator detailing the environmental impact of every customer order. But these initiatives can be less apparent in other industries.

Big Pharma, Big Opportunity 

Consider the pharmaceutical industry. According to a report titled “Carbon footprint of the global pharmaceutical industry and relative impact of its major players,” which was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the pharmaceutical industry is significantly more emission-intensive than the automotive industry. In fact, it may surprise some to learn that this sector’s emission intensity is about 55% higher than that of the automotive industry. However, given that in the US alone approximately four billion prescriptions are filled annually across some 20,000 therapies, the opportunity to adopt greener manufacturing and disposal processes becomes clearer.

But the issue is much more multifaceted than meets the eye. The pharma industry’s contribution to environmental issues is expansive and linked to water and energy consumption, global distribution, large plant and warehouse footprints, R&D, the supply chain, and transport logistics. 

In response to the increasing pressures to tackle climate change and curb carbon emissions, pharma companies are moving aggressively towards becoming more sustainable. While many companies are focusing on driving sustainability through their operations with incredibly ambitious goals over the next ten years, the opportunity to challenge pharma suppliers to “go greener” should not be overlooked.  

The Sustainability Advantage 

The safe, efficient, and sustainable delivery of temperature-sensitive biopharmaceuticals is not only possible but advantageous. With the right supply chain partner, a pharma company transporting 1 billion vaccine doses could save 1 million MWh and 340 million gallons of water, as well as reduce landfill contributions by 3 million kg and CO2 emissions by 120 million kg. 

Forward-thinking, environmentally conscious pharma companies are increasingly moving away from traditional EPS (Styrofoam) thermal packaging and single-use shippers to more sustainable alternatives that help them achieve their goals. Styrofoam may offer insulation to help control temperature, but the negative environmental impact of this material is significant. According to Washington University, Styrofoam, which is non-biodegradable and non-recyclable, takes 500 years to decompose. 

Eco-Sustainability Drives Relationship Sustainability 

When one of the top 10 pharmaceutical manufacturers was seeking a more environmentally friendly way to ship its temperature-sensitive cold chain products, the ability for reuse was a key factor in selecting a new logistics partner. The production of reusable and recyclable material is one critical aspect of this type of search; the real challenge lies with how to “get” the shippers back. While the pharma company is the economical buyer of eco-friendly shipping components, once the shipper arrives at its destination, usually a physician practice, the challenge and effort to get the container returned begins.

Yet here also lies the opportunity. For this major supplier, phone-based outreach to physician offices to educate staff scored high with most of these end-users. Not only did they appreciate the personal touch and simple return steps, but some care providers also vocalized appreciation that their business partner is operating responsibility with sustainability in mind. Not only are reusable shippers better for the environment, but their incorporation into the medical supply chain also reduces the amount of waste that physician practices generate and may have to pay for.  

The Bottom Line: Recover, Refurbish, Reuse  

The decision to move away from single-use shippers to a more sustainable alternative is an easy one when you combine the benefits for the environment and end-users with the potential impact on the bottom line. The cost “per turn” for each shipping package is comparable to the purchase price of a prequalified disposable product that is thrown away after each use. And, with a reusable solution equipped with environmentally friendly vacuum insulated panels (VIP) insulation, pharma companies can extend shipping durations. This not only further mitigates the risk of temperature excursions, but also can pay off by way of less expensive transportation options (i.e., moving to ground transport from two-day air). Operational efficiencies are also achieved with a reusable solution, including reduced inventory space thanks to just-in-time delivery of refurbished shippers. 

As more pharma companies embrace sustainability and express it publicly, others will follow suit, reinforcing sustainability leadership as a differentiator and emblem of broader corporate responsibility.