Heavily reliant on natural resources, the pharma industry is highly vulnerable to nature-related risks and climate-based disruptions. To deliver on its mission to improve health and quality of life into the future, it must prioritize practices that build resilience and adapt to the changing landscape.
- Though the pharmaceutical industry is critical to global health in the medications it produces and provides to treat patients, global health also requires a healthy planet.
- Despite pharma’s reliance on nature for active substances and raw materials, its activities significantly contribute to nature loss, requiring conservation efforts to ensure a stable supply and to protect ecosystems.
- Pharma manufacturing’s dependence on water poses a particular need for effective water stewardship.
- Pharmaceuticals’ plastic packaging contributes to recycling challenges and pollution, underscoring the urgency to find sustainable alternatives.
- A sustainable pharmaceuticals industry requires collaborative efforts across the value chain, innovative design, and moving beyond regulatory compliance.
The pharmaceutical industry (pharma) has long played a pivotal role in advancing the health and well-being of billions of people around the world, through the discovery, development, production, and distribution of preventive and curative treatments, such as medications and vaccines. It’s also an economic powerhouse, contributing around US$1.8 billion to global GDP.
Yet, as the industry grows (it’s projected to surpass US$2.4 trillion in revenue by 2030), a complex challenge emerges: how to provide high-quality, innovative and safe pharmaceutical products (and sufficient quantities of them) to the population while reducing the industry’s impacts and dependencies on nature.
To deliver on its mission to improve health and quality of life into the future, the pharmaceutical industry will need to prioritize sustainable practices that reduce its impacts on climate but also on biodiversity, water and plastic pollution, which compromise human and ecosystem health.
In the intricate dance between pharmaceutical innovation and environmental conservation, our duty is clear: to forge a harmonious future where life-saving medications coexist with thriving ecosystems. As we navigate the complex terrain of sustainability, our actions today will determine the health not only of the people but of the planet.
Biodiversity: nature’s pharmacy
Biodiversity, defined as the range of species and biological communities on earth and the genetic variation within them, has been a fount of inspiration and remedies for human ailments for centuries. Plants, fungi and microorganisms, in particular, with their natural compounds and properties, have served as a treasure trove for pharmaceutical discoveries. Around 80% of registered medicines are derived from or inspired by plants. And much of the world still relies on traditional medicines derived from plants and animals as their primary source of treatment.
The functional integrity of ecosystems is therefore crucial to human health.
Declines in genetic and species diversity driven by unsustainable human activities (e.g., overexploitation, environmental degradation and habitat destruction) undermine ecosystems’ capabilities to function effectively and as a result compromise our own ability to develop new drugs and medicines. These declines mean valuable compounds and molecules may disappear before they’re even discovered. And we’re already missing out. Because of the increasing rate of extinction among plant species, research suggests that at least one undiscovered drug is lost every two years. This risks the future of human health and can prevent companies from finding solutions for currently incurable diseases.
Within this context, conservation and restoration efforts become more than just a moral imperative, they’re crucial for ensuring a steady supply of active substances for pharmaceutical production.
Pharmaceutical companies that take action now to address their contribution to biodiversity loss will simulataneously safeguard the future of biomedical research, drug discovery and development, and ultimately human health. Not to mention, they’ll be able to make headway on other important and interrelated environmental topics, including climate change.
To get started on this transformation journey, companies will need to:
- Understand their reliance and impact on biodiversity via a biodiversity impact assessment
- Set an integrated environmental strategy that sets objectives for the main drivers of biodiversity loss, including climate, land-use change, overconsumption and pollution of water, plastic pollution, etc.
- Put appropriate governance structures and mechanisms in place to successfully implement these strategies
- Work collaboratively across the value chain and within the sector to accelerate systemic change
Water: keeping pharma operations afloat
Water quality and supply are critical sustainability factors for the pharmaceutical industry. Companies in the industry are both highly dependent on and have direct and indirect impacts on water, which is a major raw material and critical to operations. Changes in water quality or availability (as well as increasing costs) create substantial risk exposures and build barriers to the production of new and existing medications.
Though many companies are taking action to address water-related risks through water conservation measures such as recycling and advanced wastewater treatment, efforts are largely focused on formulation, production and owned operations. Water-related activities occuring at other stages of the value chain related to raw materials and patient use tend to remain blind spots that go unaddressed.
Operational resilience hinges on the industry’s ability to prioritize responsible water use across the entire value chain, including investing in water-saving technologies, and work together with industry peers to tackle shared water challenges and basin-related risks (e.g., increased competition for local water use).
Steps to start addressing current and future water risks:
- Diagnose water risks: Conduct a thorough assessment of dependencies and impacts across the pharmaceutical value chain to identify existing and potential water risks, including those related to leakage of Active Pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) into the environment and raw materials. Collaborate with experts to gain a holistic understanding of the challenges ahead.
- Set science-based water targets aligned with local needs: Recognize the shared nature of water challenges and set context-specific water targets at priority basins. By understanding and responding to site-specific risks, pharmaceutical companies can contribute to their own water security while benefiting surrounding communities and the long-term health and sustainability of the environment.
- Adopt water stewardship programs: Shift the focus from water management to water stewardship, working collaboratively with basin stakeholders to create solutions to shared challenges in priority basins where the pharmaceutical companies operate. Establish pilot programs that prioritize efficient water use within site boundaries, water quality, and collective action opportunities within the basin. This not only mitigates risks but also demonstrates leadership in finding solutions that benefit both the sector and local communities.
Plastic pollution: a mounting challenge
Tasked with preserving product integrity and ensuring patient safety, packaging and delivery devices have a crucial function in pharmaceuticals. However, because of industry regulations, safety reasons and habits, single-use plastics are used by the vast majority of pharmaceutical manufacturers to package their products and, in some cases, deliver the drug to patients, contributing to the global plastic pollution crisis. The magnitude of this problem is amplified by the complexities of plastic recycling, with less than 10% of plastic placed on the market actually being recycled.
The repercussions of plastic pollution are far-reaching. Discarded plastics not only clog landfills, blight beaches and litter the oceans, but they also release contaminates into the environment, posing threats to both ecosystem and human health — the exact thing that the industry is trying to improve. The urgency to address this issue has led to a growing concern among patients, prompting both public awareness campaigns and legislative measures, which will have a major impact on pharmaceutical companies.
This includes the EU’s revised regulation on packaging and packaging waste (still in draft), which will require that all packaging for medicinal products be recyclable and made from a minimum percentage of recycled content by January 2035. Additionally, packaging will need to be reduced to its minimum size. These requirements create unique challenges for the industry: it will require time and investment to find viable solutions that reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste while meeting high safety and quality standards for pharmaceutical products.
Principles to guide the transformation of pharmaceutical’s packaging impact:
- Optimize packaging: Remove unnecessary packaging elements without compromising product safety. Streamlined packaging not only reduces waste but can also help minimize other environmental impacts.
- Increase recycled content use: Incorporate higher levels of recycled content in packaging materials where possible while continuing to follow quality requirements, promoting a circular economy and reducing the demand for virgin resources.
- Design for recycling: Create packaging designs that are easy to disassemble, prioritize materials with lower environmental impact, and comply with the design for recycling criteria set by the draft EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation.
- Educate patients: Take steps to ensure that patients have the information they need to dispose of packaging appropriately after use.
Paving the way forward
The pharmaceutical industry has arrived at a pivotal moment on the journey to a sustainable future for healthcare. Adressing the climate challenge is not enough. Striking a balance between providing essential medications and safeguarding the natural world will not be an easy task, but it’s an imperative that must be met both for the benefit of the industry – and humanity. By embracing innovative technologies, collaborating within and across sectors, and adhering to stringent regulations, the industry can forge a path towards a healthier, more sustainable world—a world where pharmaceutical advancements are not just conducive to human health, but also to the vitality of our planet.
+ Edith Martin, Global Biodiversity Lead
+ Tatiana Fedotova, Global Water Lead
+ Laura Peano, Global Plastics + Packaging Lead