From The Editor | August 12, 2015

Is Sustainability Possible With Single-Use Technology?

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By Trisha Gladd, Editor, Life Science Connect

Is Sustainability Possible With Single-Use Technology?

At this point, it is well known that single-use technology (SUT) can offer many benefits to a manufacturer, including reduced cleaning requirements, a smaller footprint, less capital investment, more flexibility, and reduced risk of cross-contamination. However, disposables are made of plastic, a material that seems to have become the antithesis of “being green.” When you factor in the one-and-done concept of SUT, the combination can lead to concerns that this technology produces too much harmful waste to achieve sustainability. But is this true?

What Is Sustainability?

Depending on who you ask, the word sustainability could be defined in a number of ways. If you ask the United States Environmental Protection Agency (or at least go to their site), sustainability “creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.” If you ask someone in pharmaceutical manufacturing, the answer is a little more complex. This is because achieving sustainability in any manufacturing industry can be especially challenging, due to the need to balance what is good for the environment with what is good for the business. So can pharmaceutical manufacturers using SUT achieve sustainability?

In a LinkedIn conversation on the BPSA group page, Mark Petrich, a director of engineering at Merck, said he believes it is possible to achieve sustainability in a single-use facility, and it can be done by “looking for synergies between traditional economic and sustainability goals.” He explains, “Sustainability is a goal for many corporations, but cost reductions are a goal for all corporations. The best outcome is when these goals support each other.”

Is SUT Really Bad For the Environment?

There are some people in the industry who think that SUT has a far greater negative impact on the environment than stainless steel because of its use of plastic materials. But is this true? Two years ago, Bill Flanagan, director of the Ecoassessment Center of Excellence, Resource & Environmental Strategies, at GE, set out to find the answer. He worked with a team from GE’s life sciences business (which supplies single-use technologies to the industry) in collaboration with BioPharm Services (which provided process data for the study). They performed a detailed comparative environmental assessment between SUT and traditional re-usable stainless steel processing equipment using a methodology called an environmental life cycle assessment. The quantitative, data-driven method was used to analyze the entire life cycle of a single-use facility compared to one utilizing traditional stainless steel equipment. The study was performed in accordance with the ISO 14040-44 standards and was subjected to a third-party critical panel review.

There were 18 “impact categories” where Flanagan and his team compared the two approaches, looking as far back as the extraction and refinement of raw materials and their transport through the supply chain. They also analyzed water and energy consumption and end-of-life processes, such as reuse or recycling. Ultimately, the results of the assessment taught Flanagan and his team, who had their own preconceived perceptions, something they did not expect – single-use technology is substantially better for the environment compared to traditional stainless steel. In fact, it scored a lower impact in every single category. “Most life cycle assessment studies I’ve done, for various products and technologies, have had some mixed result or some trade-off,” says Flanagan. “In this case, the difference between the two approaches was very clear.”

What the study found was that the majority of environmental impacts occur during use of the technologies, where water and energy are in use. While single-use did have a higher impact at the end-of-life stage (disposal of waste), this impact represented less than one percent of the overall life cycle impacts. In the area of global warming potential, single-use scored 38 percent lower than stainless, and in cumulative energy demand, it scored 34 percent lower. “The life cycle environmental benefit of single-use technology compared to traditional stainless steel process technology is mainly due to substantially lower energy and water requirements because of the elimination of extensive cleaning and sterilization between each batch production, as well as the chemicals used during that process,” explains Flanagan. The complete results of the study can be found here.

Before this study, there wasn’t information available for manufacturers to actually know whether SUT is better or worse for the environment. Now they can use this study’s data as part of their decision-making process. Flanagan explains, “This study really resonates with the people in the biopharma industry who are responsible for making sure their own operations are more sustainable, because now they have the information to ensure that, internally, they are making the right infrastructure development choices.”

How Can A Manufacturer Achieve Sustainability?

Michael Waslin, senior engineer, environmental sustainability at Merck, is part of a team responsible for finding the synergies Petrich mentioned in his LinkedIn comment. “There are three parts to sustainability: people, profit, and planet,” explains Waslin. “It’s called achieving the triple bottom line because you are trying to maximize all three areas.”

He says Merck has what they call a three-pronged approach to their strategy of achieving sustainability. “Our first prong is efficient operations, and this is where we look at our own internal operations to see how we can reduce our water use as well as improve material, energy, and waste efficiency,” explains Waslin. He says single-use is a great fit in this instance. However, he says it does present a challenge to the goal of reducing waste. This is where the second prong of the strategy — designing the facilities, packaging, and products to be as efficient as possible — comes into play.  “Single-use material is a large and growing percentage of our operational waste.  If you can prevent the waste from being generated through design efficiencies of the supplies and packaging, you can worry less about the disposal costs, logistics, or storage,” explains Waslin. “It's a win-win for the end user and supplier because that means there are less packaging materials to buy and store. Plus, they don't have to use the manpower to package it and send it.”

Finally, the third prong is to understand how they can lessen the environmental impact in their supply chain. Waslin says this is where the supplier plays another important role in sustainability. “We want to make sure our suppliers have the same values as we do in trying to become sustainable by being as lean and efficient as possible,” he says. “Ideally, we want to make sure, for example, our suppliers aren’t located in areas where there are imminent water risks or are working to mitigate those risks. This is applying the concept of ‘responsible sourcing.’” He realizes, in some cases, it may not be possible to make changes to SUT, but they want to at least be able to talk about it. He uses nestable (made to fit close together or one within another) versus stackable drums as an example of something that could be discussed during design. “When I go to dispose of a drum and I want to send them to a recycler, if they’re not nestable, then I have to ship a tractor trailer essentially loaded with air and that’s really expensive and not good for the environment,” says Waslin. “Suppliers who are willing to have those conversations are very appealing to us.”

Last year, Merck released a corporate responsibility report, which included a section about their focus on environmental sustainability. Just as Waslin has outlined, it described a strategy that focuses on “improving the efficiency of our operations, designing for the environment, and reducing the impacts and risks in our value chain.” As proof of this effort, the report included data that showed a significant decrease since 2011 in what they considered “environmental key performance indicators.” These are greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, and operational waste generated. This year's report, capturing 2014's performance, is expected to be released soon. As dedication to this effort continues, it can only be expected that the decrease in these numbers will too.