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A Spotlight on Sustainability in Pharma and Biopharma

A laboratory flask made from foliage.
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Sustainability is a global issue affecting many industries – and the pharmaceutical sector is no exception, representing the 25th-largest carbon-emitting industry in the world.

Just 4% of publicly owned biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are on track to meet the Paris 2030 Climate Goal to limit global warming to 1.5 °C according to a report by My Green Lab – a non-profit organization tasked with building a culture of sustainability in science.

How can the industry as a whole address these issues? What are the key needs and goals of pharma and biopharma laboratories when it comes to sustainability? In the search for answers, Agilent Technologies commissioned a survey to gather insights from over 500 participants in analytical laboratories across China, Germany, the UK and the US. The survey findings expose various drivers and barriers for implementing sustainability measures, highlight the role of vendors in sustainability and pinpoint key goals for each industry.

To delve deeper into the sustainability needs of pharma and biopharma, Technology Networks spoke with James Connelly, CEO of My Green Lab.

Sarah Whelan (SW): The life sciences industry generates significant amounts of waste, for example from single-use plastics. What sort of approaches can be used to reduce waste generation?

James Connelly (JC): Labs produce a massive amount of plastic waste – a 2015 study found that it was 2% of the global total. Scientists should consider switching to glass or reusing plastic through hand washing or tip washing machines. Implementing effective inventory management systems can also prevent over-ordering and waste. Further, labs should attempt to recycle high-quality plastics that are not contaminated, which requires engaging with the scientist at the lab bench.

By promoting a culture of awareness and education among lab personnel and helping everyone understand the environmental impact of lab waste and engage in finding a solution, you will be surprised by the impact. Minimizing lab waste is a complex issue that depends on the recycling infrastructure of your region and the nature of your research. My Green Lab’s Accredited Professional Program’s Waste Module goes into depth about the lab’s options for reducing and minimizing the impact of waste and has tips and tricks that any lab can use to make a difference right now in their daily practices.

SW: The Agilent report highlights that pharma and biopharma labs consider it valuable to have compact instruments that take up less bench space. How can this contribute towards sustainability goals?

JC: Compact instruments in pharma and biopharma labs bring forth numerous sustainability advantages.

They possess smaller manufacturing and transportation footprints, reducing the environmental effects of production and distribution. Moreover, these instruments often consume less energy, thereby decreasing operational expenses, chemical usage and – potentially – carbon emissions. Their compact design also fosters well-organized lab layouts, optimizing resource utilization and reducing the necessity for extra infrastructure.

My Green Lab’s ACT label (accountability, consistency and transparency) is a holistic third-party sustainability certification for lab products that incentivizes dematerialization – the reduction in the number of materials in each lab product – among other sustainability metrics across the project's manufacturing use and end-of-life phase. Compact instruments align with sustainable goals by curbing lab environment resource consumption, energy usage and waste generation.

SW: One of the key goals highlighted in the report is energy efficiency. How can we increase energy efficiency in the pharma sector, and how does this translate into more sustainable solutions?

JC: Laboratories are massive energy-consuming spaces, using up to 10 times the energy per year of a typical commercial office. Therefore, reducing energy consumption is crucial to reduce the overall impact of the industry. Enhancing energy efficiency in the pharmaceutical sector involves a range of strategies that work together to promote sustainability.

Addressing the considerable energy consumption associated with fume hoods presents a prime opportunity. A single chemical fume hood can use as much energy as 3.5 households every day, and simple behavioral changes by lab users (such as shutting the fume hood sash when not in use) can reduce energy consumption by a third.

Participating in programs like the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge promotes better management of lab cold storage units, reducing energy waste and associated costs. Adopting best practices like regularly defrosting freezers, cleaning out unwanted samples and utilizing high-density storage boxes can collectively lead to substantial energy conservation. Additionally, chilling up ultra-low temperature freezers from -80 to -70 °C can reduce energy consumption by 30–40% and also prolong the life of a freezer.

SW: Biotechnology and pharma are among the world’s largest carbon-emitting industries. What steps need to be taken in the future to lower their position in this list of carbon emitters?

JC: The biotech and pharma industry has a massive and growing carbon footprint. My Green Lab’s Carbon Impact of Biotech and Pharma Report, published in 2022 in partnership with Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), a global financial firm and climate risk consultant, estimated that the carbon impact is at 260 million tons of CO2 and growing quickly.

Fortunately, more companies in the biotech and pharma industry are adopting zero-carbon goals and committing to the UN Race to Zero campaign. Most Race to Zero members have also adopted the My Green Lab Certification program, recognized by the Race to Zero Campaign as a critical measure of progress for the pharma and medtech sector toward a zero-carbon future. In fact, the UN Race to Zero set a goal that 95% of labs in the biotech and pharma sector achieve My Green Lab certification at the highest level by 2030. Over 100 research institutions and 30 of the largest biotech and pharma companies are progressing well toward that goal. My Green Lab currently has over 2,000 labs pursuing the program, with over 24,000 scientists engaged in 45 countries.

My Green Lab Certification focuses on engaging the lab in adopting best practices in energy efficiency, waste reduction and responsible resource management, helping to reduce emissions for company-owned operations by making laboratory operations more sustainable. My Green Lab’s ACT label supports emission reductions in the lab supply chain. ACT offers a comprehensive insight into the sustainability metrics for laboratory products across their life cycle. The transparency provided by this program empowers consumers to make informed choices, favoring products with greener footprints and encouraging manufacturers to align with sustainable production practices.

SW: Around three-quarters of labs said that it would be an exclusion criterion for them to engage commercially with companies that had not committed to “net zero”. Can you explain what is meant by net zero, and why this is an important factor to consider for the majority of labs?

JC: The UN Race to Zero Campaign uses the Science Based Targets (SBT) definition for net zero, designed to keep global warming to 1.5 °C, aligning with the Paris Climate Agreement. This requires rapid and deep emissions reductions, including halving emissions by 2030 and deep emission cuts of at least 90% before 2050. The remaining 10% must be neutralized through strategies such as carbon removal. Committing to the SBT definition of net zero is an ambitious but necessary goal for every company and organization. Every lab should consider this when evaluating their suppliers.

Labs must go beyond organizational commitments to take action on their footprint and foster a culture of sustainability and responsible research practices, including reducing energy and water consumption, promoting renewable energy use and implementing efficient waste management and recycling programs. Tools like the My Green Lab certification not only support your company's net-zero goals but also demonstrate leadership within your organization and across your industry, while fostering collaboration and sharing best practices to help everyone advance more quickly.

SW: What are the most significant challenges or barriers that the pharma industry faces in implementing more sustainable practices?

JC: The industry's reliance on single-use plastics and resource-intensive processes is deeply ingrained, requiring substantial changes to establish more sustainable operations. A significant barrier to implementing environmental changes within the pharma manufacturing industry today is measuring and reducing indirect emissions in a company's value chain, such as from suppliers or customers.

My Green Lab Certification and the ACT Label are common, industry-wide sustainability frameworks crucial for turning commitments into measurable impact. At My Green Lab, we believe that science must lead the world in addressing global climate change. This industry knows the science and is constantly making long-term strategic bets for the future of society. Climate change is both our existential risk and one of our greatest leadership opportunities.

James Connelly was speaking to Dr. Sarah Whelan, Science Writer for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

James Connelly is the chief executive officer of My Green Lab and is one of the most influential leaders in the corporate sustainability and green building movement today. James is a frequent keynote speaker on regenerative design, sustainable business, and laboratory sustainability. He is an avid writer, and his research and commentary have been featured in news outlets such as China Dialogue, CGTN TV, Engineering News Record, Building Green, Trim Tab, Sustainable Brands, and GreenBiz. James has won numerous scholarships and awards for his research and work; notably, he received a 2012 Fulbright Fellowship to research on green building rating systems in China, was selected as a Greenbiz 30 under 30 Sustainable Business Leader in 2016, and a Net Zero Energy Trailblazer in 2019.