Environmental Sustainability: An Imperative for the Life Sciences Sector

Urmi Prasad Richardson

Urmi Prasad Richardson

The record temperatures in Europe and the world this summer have given added impetus to debates about climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our economy.

We must acknowledge that the life sciences sector remains a disproportionate greenhouse gas emitter—by some measures worse than the car industry. It is estimated that laboratories use 10 times more energy and four times more water than offices and they generate 5.5 million metric tons of plastic waste a year.1

A recent survey2 found that 98% of life sciences organizations agreed that their focus on sustainability will continue to grow over time. It is encouraging that the sector recognizes the impact it has on pollution and emissions and are collectively adopting strategies to reduce their carbon footprint and improve sustainability. This commitment was made loud and clear at last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow, UK, where the leading pharmaceutical trade associations across the UK, Europe, and worldwide demonstrated their commitment to net zero and outlined short- and longer-term greenhouse gas emissions reduction efforts. However, the trends in climate change continue to demonstrate that these efforts to net-zero transition must come quicker.

Where can gains be made?

Recognizing the issue is an important step, but the biopharmaceutical sector, of vital importance worldwide, is global and encompasses a complex set of networks and supply chains—it is not straightforward to shift towards net zero across all operations.

Best practice examples need to be shared for how organizations can work with partners and suppliers to systematically reduce emission and waste from their activities. Improving operational waste usage, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, greener procurement policies and adapting low-carbon transport delivery systems are all ways of doing this.

My recommendation to the sector is to focus on several core areas where you can have a transformative impact.

The first is to priorities planning, governance, and investments that will deliver significant impact in the longer-term. This is everything from establishing steering committees and Board oversight of climate programmes to developing multiyear financial plans to realize emission targets.

To make this easier for organizations to implement, and more transparent for authorities and customers to assess, more needs to be done to ensure that there is consistent metrics used to evaluate net zero performance. There is an important role here for life sciences trade associations and governments to work together to set out what performance indicators should be measured, how to measure them consistently, and where this information should be hosted for greatest transparency.

Investment needs to be focused on key infrastructure such as facilities, software and people. The symbiotic relationship between organization, senior management and all employees in relation to sustainability and energy efficiency should not be overlooked. Feedback from staff can generate new ideas and improve performance. On the other hand, organizations have a role to play in educating and influencing staff on behaviors in offices and laboratories that minimize waste. The lessons people learn in the workplace also translate into their thinking and behavior in everyday life.

Evaluation of site design and operational efficiencies should be prioritized. An important element of this is reviewing the energy source that a site uses and considering the most appropriate renewable energy source transition possible depending on site location and capabilities. One method to consider is increasing procurement of long-term power purchasing agreements (PPAs) to support the development of new wind and solar facilities.

In the medium to long-term, organizations looking to upgrade existing or develop new facilities should seek out examples of “green” laboratories and office spaces. For example, Laboratory Monchengladbach Medica Care Centre in Germany, delivered by MLM, is a perfect example of how a modern microbiology lab has reduced its carbon footprint with no impact to quality.

The equipment we use in the development, manufacture and distribution of therapeutics is also essential to review. All players in the industry must engage with suppliers to reduce value chain emissions and drive towards more sustainable product development.

Organizations should seek to procure equipment from partners that have robust sustainable product design programmes with clear evidence of how products’ manufacture and lifecycles are evaluated. For example, the ACT Label, a program of the non-profit, My Green Lab@, provides third-party verification and greater transparency on the environmental impact of laboratory products.

How we as an industry supply and receive these products is equally important. Transporting delicate materials in a sustainable way is an ongoing challenge but there is room for innovation. For example, at Thermo Fisher Scientific we have now adopted across some of our operations paper coolers that are suitable for transporting temperature-sensitive products; these coolers are 100% recyclable and remove the need for expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam coolers that are not readily recyclable and tend to go to landfills.

The path ahead

Sustainability is the industrial revolution of our time. A driver for change, innovation, and new ways of solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

The life sciences industry has always innovated for the benefit of public health. The onus is now on us to make it our mission to bring our expertise and passion to develop innovative solutions that can reduce our own carbon footprint and be replicated elsewhere.

Looking ahead, we need to accelerate our efforts to adopt renewable energy and reduce waste in our operations. Regional industry body initiatives to support this shift – such as the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Association’s (EFPIA) CHEM 21 green manufacturing project – must continue to be ambitious and drive the industry forward. Without critical collaboration across industry, associations, government and society there is no way to achieve our common sustainability goals.

But we can also go further. We lead on innovation—and the sector should be investing more in R&D and directing our scientists to develop and commercialize renewable energy solutions such as affordable biohydrogen production and storage—identified by many governments as vital in meeting our future energy needs in a sustainable way.

I’m proud to work for an organization that has prioritized a roadmap to get to net zero and is providing examples to others in life sciences. I am excited by what we can do collectively to contribute to a world that makes our children proud and where our collaborative efforts result in a healthier, safer planet for all.

Urmi Prasad Richardson is President EMEA region, Thermo Fisher Scientific.


1. Why do we need Green Labs? https://www.mygreenlab.org/about.html

2. Thermo Fisher Scientific. Microbiology and climate change: Building a sustainable future together (2022). https://bit.ly/3ANgdBG

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