February 18, 2020

How Big of a Carbon Emissions Culprit is Waste in The Pharmaceutical Industry?

Big pharma is no stranger to controversy. Realistically, when you’re quantifying and monetizing such a sensitive product, there’s no avoiding public scrutiny. However, the usual hot-button topics aren’t what we’re discussing. Instead, we’re here to put big pharma under a microscope for an entirely different reason—assessing its carbon footprint. Unfortunately, the verdict is – overall – quite ghastly.
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The truth is that big pharma hasn’t been prioritizing the prevention of pollution. In fact, it’s more damaging to the environment than the automotive industry — despite being less valuable. A genuinely baffling reality. 

We’ll gander at some statistics of the overall carbon footprint of the industry. It’s worth noting that research available on how much product waste and spoilage relates to this footprint is scarce. 

As such, the numbers we’ll be examining looks at how much damage is caused by the general operations of big pharma.

From there, we’ll surmise that spoiled and wasted products have something of a detrimental impact on those stats. Then, through the lens of how the food industry is attempting to curb this problem, we’ll consider what big pharma can do to improve these carbon-related circumstances.

Just how big is big pharma’s carbon footprint?

First, we’ll mull over a more general overarching stat about the industry that should already trigger some alarm bells:

With over 200 companies throughout the global pharmaceutical market, only 25 of them reported their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emission in the past 5 years. In peeling one more layer from this issue, only 15 of those organizations have published these numbers since 2012.

So, it should then come as no surprise, with waste reduction far from the industry’s forefront, the numbers are somewhat frightening.

The most recent emissions statistics are from 2015—and instead of just looking at numbers, the research analyzes emissions intensity. This methodology stems from the fact that larger corporations are naturally going to generate more greenhouse gasses due to their size.  

In short, the study ascertained that the emissions intensity of big pharma was at 48.55 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per million dollars.

That number eclipses the automotive industry’s intensity by a substantial 55%.

Furthermore, the total global emissions of the pharma sector were approximately 52 megatonnes of CO2e in 2015. Whereas the automotive industry generated 46.4 megatonnes of CO2e throughout the same year.

Even more baffling is the fact that although the pharma market is 28% smaller than the automotive sector, it pollutes at a 13% higher rate.

Why did the research compare big pharma with automotive? 

Well, given the nature of the automotive operations, it seems that its carbon emissions should be more damaging than big pharma. But the automotive sector places more focus on mitigating those factors. In contrast, emission prevention doesn’t seem to be a priority to big pharma. (The stats discussed here were found in this article)

What do these emissions have to do with spoiled and wasted products?

As discussed already, the above statistics apply a generic number to carbon waste. It doesn’t necessarily get too much into specifics and involves the overall operations and electricity usage. But how do you cut down on carbon emissions?

In our opinion, you compartmentalize and target specific facets and factors in the industry that are primary culprits of waste.

One of those culprits is going to be product waste and spoilage. By taking measures to offset product waste, you can assume it’d lessen the adverse impact these gases have on the environment.

A clear example of how mitigating product waste and spoilage is offered by the food industry.

Looking at food waste emissions

Annually, the world discards about 1.3 billion tons of food, which amounts to 1/3rd of the total food produced in the world. It’s responsible for a greenhouse gas footprint that exceeds the size of all countries, excluding China and the U.S.

54% of food waste happens during and after food harvesting, often during the handling and storage processes. From there, the processing, distribution and consumption stages comprise the rest of the waste and spoilage factors.

Producing food, even with optimal efficiency and environmental consciousness, is still going to generate sizeable emission

But it’s possible to offset these emissions numbers through waste prevention efforts. Whereas failing to try while abiding by inefficient practices, will ensure those numbers steadily rise.

Suggested practices of food waste prevention revolve around reducing crop losses through improved farming practices.

Other waste-reduction techniques are focused on re-use and recycling strategies for donation purposes. Also, experts suggest diverting food that isn’t fit for human consumption to livestock.  

Lastly, it’s wise for those in the food industry to recycle, anaerobically digest, and compost food to recover energy and nutrients. By following these methods, it’ll minimize the methane production of landfills ripe with rotting food.

Now that we’ve provided an outlook at the food industry’s product waste statistics, it’s worth asking how this connects with big pharma?

Connecting the food industry’s carbon footprint with big pharma

What do the food industry and big pharma have in common? They both have production and storage methods that can impact waste creation and prevention.

Yes, it’s somewhat outside of the hands of these companies whether consumers are wasting their products. Yet, there are steps these companies can take to ensure that what’s being made isn’t ending up in landfills.

For big pharma, there’s no agriculture involved. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t product cultivation that requires a waste-conscious approach.

One way to minimize waste in big pharma is through cutting plastic waste by reducing the total amount of packaging produced overall. The focus should be on extracting the most value out of materials already being used during production.

Furthermore, innovations in formulations and dispensing will decrease the quantity of packaging needed to deliver products.

For instance, there’s a tamper-evident design of two-in-one vials for pharmaceuticals. Consumers can discern the product’s authenticity with ease without any guesswork or worry about mixing drugs. This results in less waste, a decreased chance of contamination, and enhanced cost-effectiveness compared to traditional glass vials.  

Big pharma can reduce its carbon footprint by preventing product waste and spoilage. The only question is whether industry decision-makers are willing to do their part.