Building a Greener Supply Chain: Key Considerations for Cold Chain

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology, May 2022, Volume 46, Issue 5
Pages: 34–37

With the majority of large pharmaceutical manufacturers aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030, reusable packaging remains a largely untapped approach in achieving measurable ESG gains.

With nearly six billion prescriptions filled in the United States each year, the market for prescribed drugs is vast (1). There is also an expansive network of medication distributors that partner with drug manufacturers to deliver products to patients and providers. As most therapies are time- and temperature-sensitive, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to ensure widespread access to these vital treatments.

Globally, the pharmaceutical logistics market commands approximately US $80 billion in revenue annually and continues to expand with no end in sight (2). The US is the largest consumer of prescription therapies, but increased trade across large European countries along with successful commercialization of EU-based discoveries are driving the European market’s explosive growth in this sector. Infrastructure improvements, including the creation of highways and information technology modernization investments, are paving the way for new distribution models that increasingly resemble the flow of pharmaceutical goods in the US.

With downstream supply chains relying on thousands of drugs to treat millions of patients spanning billions of miles, it’s not surprising that the pharmaceutical industry emits more CO2 than the automotive industry (3). After adding in the energy and materials used to meet upstream manufacturing needs, such as procuring APIs from distant suppliers, the pharmaceutical supply chain emerges as a tremendous consumer of natural resources.

Legislation vs. self-regulation

With the automotive industry having sustained decades of regulatory pressure to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the pharmaceutical industry has historically not faced the same degree of external pressure around environmental damage (4). Nonetheless, pharmaceutical executives have stepped up in recent years and acknowledged that their companies must do better in terms of environmental impact. The industry has similarly voiced a commitment to aggressively reduce carbon outputs, apply innovation to conserve water and energy, and limit waste.

Nearly all of the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers are striving toward carbon neutrality in the coming years (5). For example, Merck and Novartis both plan to be carbon neutral across their operations by 2025, while Pfizer has pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030 (6, 7, 8). Great progress has been and continues to be made in this realm thanks to facility modernization efforts, work-at-home programs, the adoption of electric vehicles, a focus on reducing plastic use, and new green construction standards. Due to the sheer volume of biopharma products moving around the world on any given day, however, the supply chain stands out as a discrete operational area with opportunities for environmental optimization.

Addressing a weighty matter

Making gains in sustainability can start with small steps. Consider the size and weight of product packaging, for example. Packaging components that are oversized for payload contents—which could be one treatment or in the case of vaccines, hundreds of doses—takes up excessive space and leads to higher overall carrier costs while limiting cargo capacity. With temperature-sensitive medications, cooling mechanisms, such as freezer plates or gel packs, are often overengineered and imprecise in terms of size and weight and, in many cases, can nearly double the overall weight of a package, making for heavier cargo loads and greater CO2 emissions.

It's important to address the environmental impact of cold chain packaging because newly approved interventions, including mRNA vaccine platforms and many personalized therapies, often require strict thermal control to preserve efficacy. With little regulation dictating standards for thermal control of pharmaceutical products, manufacturers and distributors employ a variety of approaches. For years, expanded polystyrene (EPS) plastic foam was the preferred packaging material for maintaining temperature given the lightweight material’s excellent insulating capabilities. EPS is now considered a possibly carcinogenic environmental pollutant. As a result, it has been shunned by consumers and is being banned by states and municipalities at an increasing rate.

Striking a balance

When it comes to reducing cold chain costs for medication distribution, the benefit of making a shift to any one dimension can create risk in others. For example, moving from an EPS box to corrugate may increase shipment weight. Lighter cooling mechanisms could then be used to counteract the weight increase, but this change may necessitate overnight delivery. Conversely, overpacking with cooling material to support longer transportation times can add to overall weight along with increasing the risk of unintentionally freezing contents and changing therapeutic properties, which ultimately influences efficacy.

As pharmaceutical manufacturers look at their products’ cold chain requirements and related distribution expenses—financial and environmental alike—packaging is a rich target for optimization. This “fit-for-purpose” approach can be scalable across therapies that share temperature requirements, form factor, and size. Further, as direct-to-patient distribution continues to accelerate as an accepted distribution pathway post-COVID, scale won’t be feasible without highly engineered packaging that removes controllable risk and offers protection against uncontrollable risk.

Signals for readiness to reuse

Over the past three decades, consumers have become increasingly comfortable with the concept and act of recycling. People generally embrace the idea of preventing waste from entering landfills and returning goods to be purposefully reused. It does, however, take electricity and water to transform recycled material into a new product or form factor, making energy consumption considerations an important part of the conversation.


After decades of excess—big cars, large homes, multiple closets, etc.—younger generations seem to be wanting to live much differently than their elders. These generations have shown a shift toward tiny homes, rented clothing, and energy-efficient vehicles. This change in focus has also prompted companies to display the environmental impacts of mundane purchases and behaviors at the time of a transition, from ordering a burrito, to booking a flight, to sending a document for electronic signature. To own less, leave a smaller footprint, and extend usable lifespan, consumers are increasingly adopting products and processes that are circular in nature.

When it comes to the protection of pharmaceuticals, particularly those that are personalized and/or high value, the reuse approach enables investment in higher-performing thermal and protective material. Beyond paying ESG dividends from the conversion of raw materials to finished goods once, this approach permits manufacturers and distributors (and patients) to benefit from packaging that is cost-prohibitive when deployed as single-use.

The case for circularity

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, a circular economy refers to an economy that uses a “systems-focused approach and involves industrial processes and economic activities that are restorative or regenerative by design, enable resources used in such processes and activities to maintain their highest value for as long as possible, and aim for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, and systems” (9). In other words, a circular economy promotes the use of goods that survive multiple users, applications, and/or purposes.

The need for thermal packaging for temperature-sensitive medications is nearly precisely addressed by circularity. For starters, no clinic or consumer wants to be responsible for adding plastic foam to a landfill or having to pay higher tipping fees for refuse services. Once heavier thermal packaging has served its purpose during transport, there is no need for it. Now, the ability to invest in the highest performance insulation with materials that are lightweight, custom-engineered, and durable allows for amortization over multiple uses. Finally, with the operational commitment to retrieving the packaging in a timely manner, a comprehensive approach that is behaviorally feasible and environmentally sustainable emerges.

Adopting circularity in the pharmaceutical distribution chain delivers measurable ESG benefits at multiple lifecycle points. High quality, reusable containers that are manufactured once and reused can be deployed more than 50 times each. With reverse logistics expertise, assuming 95% or more shippers are returned, a fleet of 500 boxes could serve nearly 25,000 pack-outs, providers, and/or patients.

To transform raw materials to support higher volume production and serve the same recipient population with single-use shipping scenarios known as “take, make, waste” would take considerably more energy, contributing to the overall higher global warming potential of single-use shippers compared to reusable parcels. Higher negative impacts on the environment are evident across other categories as well, including acidification and eutrophication potential.

The difference between the impact on cumulative energy demand between approaches is significant, with single-use demand being almost 50% higher than reuse models. The water depletion potential is also nearly twice as high, and the waste generation of single-use shippers was found to be nearly seven times that of a reuse model (10). With EPS specifically, more than 80% of waste meets end of life in a landfill where it expands in volume over time (11).

Going high tech for ESG

Technology is one of the greatest enablers of circularity in pharmaceutical packaging and logistics. Recent developments in the Internet of Things devices that are smaller, lighter, and smarter enable access to product status information in real-time. Data points around distance, timing, temperature, and other key condition metrics can be gathered when shipments are equipped to provide this visibility, which provides peace of mind that the therapy is safe for a patient after transport. Aggregated and analyzed over time, these data points can inform future lane selection, smaller box sizing, optimized pack-out procedures, and longer shipping duration.

Because there is no mechanism to retrieve physical devices with single-use systems, it is not easily feasible to digitize boxes with tracking technology. Savvier suppliers have piloted adding monitors into single-use boxes and included paid envelopes to facilitate the return of the device. This approach, however, requires the recipient to take additional steps, which can be a deterrent. With a reusable container, these monitoring devices can be embedded within the walls of the shipper in an unobtrusive manner. A successful return logistics operation can ensure smart devices are returned to benefit the next product recipient while simultaneously extending the return on investment of enhanced visibility.

Another benefit of reuse powered by digital enablement comes in the form of ESG reporting. Supply chain activities generate significant amounts of CO2, and executing these activities with circularity reduces the output of dangerous greenhouse gases. By leveraging real-world data collected during the logistics process, ESG improvements can be calculated for every single shipment and these insights can be reported to demonstrate progress against stated ESG objectives. This approach to reducing CO2 can live in upstream supply chain flows as well by securing APIs, inter-company transfers, clinical shipments, and so forth.

Counting down to 2030

With less than 10 years to go to meet self-imposed manufacturer timelines for becoming carbon-neutral, the pharmaceutical supply chain may offer an untapped opportunity to implement more sustainable practices. As the consumer and corporate business attitudes turn increasingly green, implementing circularity for high-value packaging can drive measurable ESG improvements starting on day one. This approach additionally enables manufacturers to invest in optimized insulation and new technology to protect therapeutic breakthroughs as they travel to treat patients in need.


1. IQVIA, “The Use of Medicines in the U.S.: Spending and Usage Trends and Outlook to 2025,”, May 27, 2021.

2. Grand View Research, Pharmaceutical Logistics Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Type (Cold Chain Logistics, Non-cold Chain Logistics), By Component (Storage, Transportation), By Region, And Segment Forecasts, 2021–2028 (April 2021).

3. L. Belkhir and A. Elmeligi, Journal of Cleaner Production online, DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.11.204 (March 20, 2019).

4. W. Kaiser, International Committee for the History of Technology, vol. 9, 31–43 (2022),

5. D. Jimenez, “Cutting the Carbon Footprint of Pharma’s Supply Chain,”, Feb. 9, 2022.

6. Merck (known as MSD outside the United States and Canada), “Merck Accelerates Climate Goals; Announces Carbon Neutrality by 2025,” Press Release, April 26, 2021.

7. Novartis, “Novartis Accelerates Efforts Toward ESG Targets to Increase Access to Medicines, Improve Health Equity and Achieve Net-Zero Carbon Emissions,” Press Release, Sept. 30 2021.

8. Pfizer, “Carbon Neutral by 2030: How Pfizer is Fighting Climate Change with Ambitious Science Based Goals,”, accessed April 2022.

9. EPA, “What is a Circular Economy?”,, accessed April 2022.

10. R. LeBlanc, Sustainability Consulting, Comparative Life Cycle Assessment: Reusable and Single-Use Cold Chain Shippers (September 2021).

11. M. Chandra, et al., “Real Cost of Styrofoam,” presentation at the St. Louis Earth Day (St. Louis, Nov. 22, 2016).

About the author

Scott Whyte is the chief digital officer for AeroSafe Global.

Article details

Pharmaceutical Technology
Vol. 46, No. 5
May 2022
Pages: 34–37


When referring to this article, please cite it as S. Whyte, “Building a Greener Supply Chain: Key Considerations for Cold Chain,” Pharmaceutical Technology, 46 (5) 2022.