May 9, 2023

First-of-its-kind study, shows that big pharma could cut by nearly half, its carbon footprint, if it made some key changes

Cornell researchers and the Clinton Health Access Initiative have released an unprecedented analysis of the full life cycle environmental impact of an HIV medication, showing that pharmaceutical companies could reduce by nearly half their environmental impact by optimizing manufacturing processes and supply chain networks and switching to alternative energy sources. The findings have been published on the cover of the May 1 issue of ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

The pharmaceutical industry is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, rivaling those of the automotive industry. However, their contribution to greenhouse emissions has not been studied or scrutinized to the same rigor as those of the automotive industry. Most studies on the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals have until now focused on the manufacturing stage of production and not the entire lifecycle from production to waste treatment once the patient has consumed medication.

The study explored the full life cycle carbon impact of the HIV medication, Tenofovir Disoproxil Fumarate (TDF). It evaluated its carbon impact from extraction, procurement, and production of raw materials, to manufacturing and formulation, as well as transportation and distribution, and waste treatment after use by the patient.

The biggest contributor to carbon emissions from pharmaceuticals is the energy source used for production. Most generic drugs, including TDF, are produced in India, which relies on coal for energy. By switching to renewable energy sources, pharmaceutical companies could cut their carbon footprint by up to 45 percent. Long distances from sources of raw materials to production facilities, and of final products to the patient, also lead to significant carbon contribution from transportation. Optimizing supply chain networks, the study found, could reduce carbon emissions by over nine percent. Finally, pharmaceutical companies could lessen the environmental impact of TDF manufacturing by making additional changes such as improving recycling of used solvent chemicals and minimizing packaging.

The authors of the study hope that the analysis will serve as a model for not just how TDF can be produced in a more environmentally conscious manner, but how many other drugs could also be produced more sustainably.

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Written by Harvey Mogojwe, Communications Associate