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The Urgent Need for Sustainability in Life Sciences Operations

Abhay Shankar Prasad

Senior consultant

Nitin Gupta

Innovation officer at CTO Group, Life Sciences

Sustainability has become increasingly important for companies across all industries. Placing sustainability at the center of the business strategy can equip organizations to better respond to the volatility triggered by unpredictable future challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one such example. It accelerated the digital transformation in the industry and brought about opportunities for technological advancements. Life sciences companies had to shift focus towards improving patient engagement, accessibility and delivering real-time patient outcomes, and postpone implementing their sustainability goals. This further led to an increase in the amount of waste the industry produced.

Environmental issues in life sciences are complex and range from increased regulatory pressures to exponentially increasing resource consumption. Enhanced awareness among consumers has led life sciences companies to acknowledge the urgent need for sustainability, set goals, and sketch an innovative plan to attain them.

This is more evident from the fact that industry leaders such as AstraZeneca, GSK, Pfizer, and other prominent players have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Most of these companies’ plans categorize the initiatives as environmental, social, and governance (ESG).  

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The focus here, as per Figure 1, is on the direct relevance and impact of environmental sustainability initiatives on life sciences industry operations.

Companies are aiming to reduce environmental impact in the following key areas:

Waste management through ’Green chemistry’

Pharmaceutical waste is an increasing global concern. At the current pace, the amount of pharmaceutical waste leaching into waterways could increase by two-thirds before 2050. This calls for immediate need to reimagine and adopt new ways of chemical synthesis to minimize waste.

The reagent used in the drug manufacturing process is hazardous, which goes to waste after the reaction is complete. For synthesis of an active pharma ingredient, Amgen invested in a continuous-flow ozonolysis process to perform the oxidation. The reaction is carried out in an aqueous mixture of an environmentally benign solvent. This eliminates the potential of heavy-metal contamination.

Merck applies green chemistry techniques for synthesis, ultimately developing a green and sustainable commercial manufacturing process. Furthermore, the alkylation step, which involved highly hazardous chemicals, has been replaced, with a safer and more robust process.

Technology also plays an important role in the arena of waste management. For example, IT-led complex bioremediation algorithms are being leveraged to understand the link between microbes, which enable complete degradation of industrial waste. 

Wastewater treatment with newer technologies

Wastewater generated in manufacturing operations from life sciences facilities contain high levels of toxic chemicals. As per research from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), wastewater treatment plants that receive a discharge from pharma manufacturing facilities have extremely high levels of active pharma ingredients (10–1,000 times higher than other plants that received no such waste). With such adverse impacts and resulting regulatory pressures, life sciences companies are undertaking several new approaches to treat wastewater so that the same can be recycled.

Novartis has built a new wastewater treatment plant in its Romania facility, equipped with the latest carbon-filter technology to purify water from active pharmaceutical ingredients before discharge. Janssen Pharmaceutical recycles as many solvents as possible. Furthermore, all waste effluent is treated in their ultra-modern water-treatment plantsSmart technologies like IoT, image analytics, deep learning provide real-time insights on wastewater chemical composition, sewage blockages, pH, or turbidity analyzers, and the like. Acting on these insights can ensure a smooth water treatment process, positively impacting the environment.

Sustainable packaging: The big first step

Many life sciences companies are rethinking pharma packaging. For example Pfizer is supporting a recycling initiative for one of its brands, which has resulted in 60% of all packaging being returned to their recycling center.

Companies are making calculated moves using cutting-edge innovation and critical thinking approach. For instance, robotic arms empowered with smart vision are being used to optimize packaging spaces. Technologies such as RFID, printable electronics, cloud, drones, and 5G, can integrate well with newer packaging formats, while ensuring seamless tracking throughout the transit journey.

Sustainability-first for life sciences

Life sciences companies are continually working towards reducing the adverse impact of their operations on the environment. To achieve the formidable goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, they need to keep exploring, innovating, and implementing new practices in their core processes such as R&D, manufacturing, and supply chain. The convergence of life sciences and new-age technologies such as IoT, image analytics, drones, and 5G is key to building a sustainable planet.

About the authors

Abhay Shankar Prasad
Abhay Shankar Prasad is a Senior Consultant at TCS and is responsible for tracking industry trends, managing innovation ecosystem, assisting in driving thought leadership, and driving innovation through technology in Life Sciences. With over 21 years of experience in technology and business transformation, he assists various life sciences customers in their transformation journey by adopting new technologies and processes across the business value chain. Abhay holds a post graduate degree in marketing and international business and is an alumnus of the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, India.
Nitin Gupta
Nitin Gupta is a part of the Life Sciences’ Chief Technology Officer’s group at TCS. In his current role, he facilitates innovation within Life Sciences. He has experience in areas such as machine learning, IoT, 3D printing, and social and digital marketing, with an in-depth understanding of evolving trends. He has published several thought leadership papers, blogs, and use cases in reputed national and international publications. He holds a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Aligarh Muslim University, Uttar Pradesh, India, and an MBA in Marketing from Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management, Delhi, India.