Realistic Net-Zero Goals for Pharma

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - June 2023
Volume 18
Issue 3

How temperature-controlled containers can play key role in the industry's mission for carbon neutrality across the supply chain.

Richard Peck

Richard Peck

At its core, the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries exist to help people live healthier lives, which many might argue is the foundation for a prosperous society. COVID-19 encapsulated the intrinsic connection between these industries and the global economy; however, it also raised public awareness on what it takes to get a medicine from the manufacturer to the patient. Naturally, with such a spotlight, focus shifted toward the subject of sustainability, against the universal backdrop of looming climate emergency.

Taking into account the revenue generated by the pharma industry, as was done in a 2019 study,1 it can be deduced that the industry generates about 48.55 tons of CO2 equivalent per $1 million. This is 55% higher that the emission intensity of the automotive industry. Thus, many may not be surprised to see the recent regulatory action from governments and international institutions, be it in the form of carbon tax, tighter policies, or shipping restrictions.

With such demand for companies to meet the three pillars of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) triad, many pharma organizations are reassessing their processes, and taking tangible actions to become more sustainable. For example, Pfizer has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and announced a list of measures to achieve this, from reducing direct emissions to purchasing 100% of electricity from renewable sources.

Novartis is taking similar steps, but has separated its deadlines for carbon neutrality—2025 across its own operations, but 2030 throughout its value chain.

Achieving real and measurable change needs to be practical for pharma companies. A huge number of complex steps are required to ensure life-saving products arrive to patients safely and securely. With dozens of organizations involved, each of these partners and processes must be carefully considered to find the optimum balance between operational efficiency, product protection, and sustainability.

The core requirements of pharma shipping

The baseline requirement for pharmaceutical logistics is that goods arrive on time, undamaged, and with no temperature excursions. So, despite the rising pressure for greener practices, there are three critical functions required to shipping pharmaceuticals:

  1. A container must be robust enough to withstand the rigors of international freight and protect its cargo.
  2. Said container needs to be optimized for temperature control to avoid excursions that render its cargo ineffective.
  3. The container should provide an optimal packaging-to-payload ratio.

Ultimately, mitigating risk is the No. 1 priority for pharmaceutical shipments. Just to take one leg of the journey, the International Air Transportation Association (IATA) reports that over 50% of all temperature excursions occur while a shipment is under the control of an airline or within the airport environment.2 The impact of this on the pharma industry is substantial. According to the Institute for Human Data Science, the biopharma industry loses approximately $35 billion annually as a result of failures in temperature-controlled logistics.3

Choosing the right cold chain solution

Essentially, every container available on the market has one common goal: ensuring palletized and sub-palletized delivery of pharma shipments, in a way that keeps the product safe from physical damage and temperature excursions.

Nonetheless, there are significant distinctions between suppliers and various choices that a pharma manufacturer must make, in terms of the thermal technology, materials, and design of any given container. Each option will have its advantages and disadvantages, but what happens if we judge containers exclusively through the lens of sustainability? Which solutions have the lowest environmental impact, without compromising the critical purpose of the container?

Balancing cost, quality, and sustainability

The fundamental dilemma in pharma logistics is often understood to be a trade-off between establishing incentives for circular, sound solutions, and the high costs involved in doing so. When it comes to containers in this sector, as is true for many other clean technologies such as electric cars, it is crucial to compare the total cost of ownership. While purchase price and freight cost are important and easily identifiable criterion, analysis of the total cost of shipping reveals other hidden costs, which can have a significant impact on the overall price of the packaging tool, including the qualification and compliance process.

For the manufacturer, all systems are required to pass through a rigid set of qualification stages, to ensure they are meeting regulatory requirements, industry standards, and expected performance, which is critical for the safety and quality of the drug product. However, creating the documentation package during qualification requires a considerable amount of time for testing and internal resources, and even the smallest error or misuse of laboratory equipment can lead to costly penalties for a pharma manufacturer.

Thus, to minimize time and expense, it is common for pharma companies to only validate a limited choice of containers. Realistically, though, this means that there could easily be a situation where these containers are not optimized for the product they are shipping. For example, shipping a half-empty box because smaller, more suitable-sized containers available on the market have not been validated.

And often, customers may be aware that their shipping solution is wrong; that causes unsustainable shipping. Carbon expenditure is achieved by making the right decisions across the total shipping process, but the current validation and qualification process limits the ability to make those decisions.

Challenging the orthodox

Forward-thinking providers of temperature-controlled containers are challenging the traditional qualification method, helping manufacturers match the right solution to product every time, to save long-term carbon expenditure.

Modern technologies have made it easier than ever to compress the equipment validation timeline to save time and money. Advanced automation technologies, such as a digital payload calculator and a standardized cloud-based control system, provide opportunities to streamline the three core stages of the equipment validation process: design qualification, operational qualification, and performance qualification.

Automation methods and technologies centered around historical, accurate data put the building blocks in place to help prove systems are installed correctly from day one, that they operate as expected, and that all processes perform to specification—meaning companies can onboard equipment much quicker, and at less cost.

By shortening the equipment validation, this provides significant value to the pharmaceutical industry in its goal to achieve net zero.

About the Author

Richard Peck is Global Strategic Advisor at Tower Cold Chain.


1. Big Pharma Emits More Greenhouse Gases than the Automotive Industry. The Conversation. May 27, 2019.

2. Pharmaceutical Transportation: How to Increase Air Cargo's Market Share. IATA graphic.

3. Failures in Temperature-Controlled Logistics Cost Biopharma Industry Billions. Air Cargo News. July 27, 2019.

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