Pharma going for a greener New Year

January 1, 2008
Susan Aldridge
Pharmaceutical Technology Europe
Volume 20, Issue 1

While it's unlikely that Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize will gain him the US Presidency, the award has put global warming firmly in the spotlight (as if it wasn't there already). Reducing its carbon footprint is among the many goals Big Pharma has for the coming year - and beyond. Many energy consumption issues are common to all industries and individuals, such as putting curbs on business travel, bringing renewable energy sources on board and switching off lights in unoccupied rooms, but there are other issues that are specific to our industry. For example, asthma inhalers emit greenhouse gases and many pharmaceutical syntheses use toxic solvents.

While it's unlikely that Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize will gain him the US Presidency, the award has put global warming firmly in the spotlight (as if it wasn't there already). Reducing its carbon footprint is among the many goals Big Pharma has for the coming year — and beyond. Many energy consumption issues are common to all industries and individuals, such as putting curbs on business travel, bringing renewable energy sources on board and switching off lights in unoccupied rooms, but there are other issues that are specific to our industry. For example, asthma inhalers emit greenhouse gases and many pharmaceutical syntheses use toxic solvents.

Key points

Similar to all businesses, pharmaceutical companies face challenges in reducing their carbon footprint, such as changing company culture and making a business case for investing in new technology that could take time to show a return. But the potential benefits are undeniable; by reducing their carbon footprint, companies help the planet and improve their image (always a bonus for pharma), and reduce costs, thereby pleasing shareholders.

I took a quick peek at the approaches being used by a couple of the big companies, to see if they really are leading by example. The plans appear to be comprehensive and ambitious. There are car sharing schemes, wind and solar power, green facility design, and plenty of green chemistry — to name but a few of the ideas underway. Green chemistry, in particular, is being used to unite the companies in their search for cleaner, leaner pharmaceutical production.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) Green Chemistry Institute created the Pharmaceutical Roundtable in 2005 to "bring key medicines to the patient with minimum impact on the environment". The Roundtable is open to all pharmaceutical research, development and manufacturing companies, and currently comprises AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly & Company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., Pfizer and Schering-Plough Corporation — all of which have their own green chemistry programmes. At their last meeting, they agreed on a number of areas where better chemistries need to be developed. A major objective was to reduce the number of processes that involve the formation of amide bonds and the reduction of amides, both of which are prominent in pharmaceutical chemistry. Forming an amide is a reaction with 'poor atom economy' — that is, to put simply, it generates too much waste. Reduction of amides generally involves hydrides that give rise to waste byproducts that need special treatment. They also want to reduce the use of chlorinated solvents and search for solventless methods of cleaning equipment.

Being the first pharma company to appoint a full-time green chemistry leader, Pfizer takes its obligations very seriously. In 2003, the company won a Crystal Faraday award for work on 'greening' the synthesis of sildenafil (Viagra), followed by an AstraZeneca award for Excellence in Green Chemistry and Engineering for pregabalin (Lyrica). Pregabalin, a treatment for nerve pain, is a significant new product for the company and will account for 15–20% of API production by 2010. The award-winning research involves implementation of a biotransformation process for pregabalin synthesis, where all four steps take place in water. ''This will lead to a significant reduction in our use of carbon-based solvents,'' says Peter Dunn, Pfizer's green chemistry leader. "It is also very unusual to have as many as four steps performed in water." The process will lead to a decrease in solvent wastes requiring incineration. Calculations also suggest that the new way of synthesizing pregabalin cutsin energy and material inputs by a fifth compared with the first generation synthesis at the 1000 kg scale.

The achievement underlines the company's commitment to biotransformations, with dedicated teams of microbiologists in the US and UK looking for new ways of using enzymes in manufacturing. Dunn adds that all Pfizer R&D sites have a green chemistry team comprising medicinal chemists, process chemists and safety specialists, and there are also five PhD students working solely on green chemistry themes for the company. They have annual conferences at each research site and hand out 13 dedicated awards, which are given to charity or to green chemistry researchers in academia. Pfizer is also involved in running workshops globally to interest undergraduates: "We are trying to promote green chemistry to a new generation of chemists," says Dunn.

Similar to other Big Pharma companies, Pfizer takes a very broad view on the carbon footprint issue and has been adopting an 'aggressive' and global strategy to reduce emissions since 2002. "We look at anything and everything that generates greenhouse gases in our operations," explains Charles Calitri, senior director of engineering operations and technical services, Pfizer Global Engineering. "Our focus has been on direct and indirect emissions from our site operations and we are now beginning to assess impact outside our operations such as those emissions resulting from business travel, our fleet and contributors along the supply chain. Although it has sometimes been hard to quantify the impact in terms of carbon reduction, we are now getting closer to the full picture." The company is committed to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is setting a second generation goal after achieving its original GHG reduction goal in 2007. In addition, Pfizer intends to meet 35% of its global electricity needs by 2010 through 'clean' energy sources. Teams at Pfizer use a number of innovative electronic and knowledge transfer tools, such as a web portal listing more than 3000 different projects related to energy issues to quantify energy savings and knowledge sharing. Pfizer is also committed to develop environmentally responsible facilities through its green building programme, conserving natural resources and reducing energy consumption.

The company has undergone some dramatic changes in its business model in recent years, but its environmental programme has survived the pressure. "People are becoming more accepting of the need for real change when it comes to energy consumption," says Calitri. What has probably made the difference is the company's appointment of 'energy champions', who are dedicated to accomplishing the 'green' targets at both regional and site level, as well as the public commitment of senior figures to the carbon reduction strategy. Calitri adds that it is vital to maintain an external focus to their efforts through alliances with academia, industry and organizations such as the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering, which is forming a new group for carbon issues. "We are trying to tap as many sources as we can," he says.

Meanwhile, James Hagan, vice president corporate environment health and safety at GSK says they go right back down the supply chain when it comes to carbon footprint. "We look at energy conservation as an organization — from R&D, manufacture and distribution to transport and the movement of employees." One key issue is emissions from inhalers. GSK spent one billion dollars looking at alternatives to chlorofluorocarbons and came up with 1,1,2,2 tetrafluoroethane (HFC134a).

It still has some global warming potential, so the company is looking for alternatives to this as well. GSK's new asthma drug Seretide is available in a dry powder formulation, but this is not suitable for all patients, so it is not possible to avoid propellants completely. Indeed, a substantial proportion of GSK's carbon footprint does still come from inhaler use.

But the good news is that the company's carbon footprint has gone down year on year from the mid 90s. In 2000, the company set a target of getting carbon emissions down by 8% per unit of sales — and managed to exceed this with a reduction of 13%. "In 2007, the International Panel on Climate Change stated that they are 90% certain climate change will happen. We took this as a clarion call and stepped up our programme with aggressive energy and global warming targets," Hagan says. These comprise a 20% reduction in carbon emissions per unit sale by 2010 and 45% reduction by 2015. To do this, GSK has created a unique $75 million Special Fund to support initiatives such as the introduction of combined heat and power as an energy source. The company wants to be transparent about its global warming strategy and Hagan has invited me to return in a year's time to see where they are in achieving their goals (and I promise to do so). "We don't want to cover up if we don't make it," he says.

He adds that the GSK plant at Barnard Castle (UK) has been very proactive and has put up two large wind turbines that generate 10% of energy needs. The site has also looked rigorously at the small things — turning off lights when people are not in a room, using low-energy light bulbs and equipment such as variable speed motors, which use less energy when rotating at lower speeds and can be adjusted to the nature of the task. In Singapore, the GSK plant gets 5–10% of its energy from solar panels, making it the country's most significant user of this form of renewable energy. Meanwhile, R&D is looking for a decrease of 50% in waste from all its products. "This is a major initiative. There are some real heroes in R&D," says Hagan.

What do they hope to achieve by these efforts? "In 1995, the goal of carbon reduction would have been to save money, but concern regarding the company's obligations as a corporate citizen has become increasingly important. In 2007, money saving and the ethical aspect of carbon reduction are equally important to us. We have external stakeholders who have asked us to be more aggressive in our approach," says Hagan.

And surely it is appropriate that human healthcare businesses are committed to improving the health of the environment as well?