News Release

Drug industry’s carbon impact could be cut by half

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. – In a first-of-its-kind analysis, Cornell University researchers and partners found that pharmaceutical producers could reduce their environmental impact by roughly half by optimizing manufacturing processes and supply chain networks and by switching to renewable energy sources.

Pharmaceutical manufacturing is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, similar in magnitude to the automotive industry, though it has not received anywhere near the level of academic or regulatory scrutiny, said Fengqi You, professor in energy systems engineering at Cornell and senior author on the paper.

“Much of the focus of decarbonization centers on products like solar panels and electric cars, which are very important, but pharmaceuticals are also a tremendous and growing contributor,” You said. “We hope our study will become a motivating example for other academic collaborations and policy agenda studies around decarbonizing the pharmaceutical industry.”

Most previous studies investigating the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals have focused on the manufacturing or formulation stage, while this study explored the full life-cycle carbon impact of the HIV antiretroviral drug Tenofovir Disoproxil Fumarate (TDF), said Yanqiu Tao, first author of the paper and a doctoral student in You’s lab.

“We included extraction, procurement and production of raw materials, to manufacturing and formulation, to packaging, transportation and distribution, and to waste treatment post-consumption by the patient,” Tao said. “We are the first, very comprehensive and systematic assessment of the pharmaceutical life cycle of any drug.”

By far the biggest contributor to carbon impact is the energy source used in manufacturing, the researchers found. Many generic drugs, including TDF, are produced in India, which primarily relies on coal for its energy. Drug producers should be encouraged to power their operations with renewables instead, the authors said.

Large transportation distances between raw material sources, production facilities and patients also contribute to carbon impact; carefully optimizing supply chain networks could alone reduce life cycle carbon footprint by up to 9.3%, the study found. Changes in the way TDF is manufactured, such as improving recycling of used solvent chemicals, and minimizing packaging, could also reduce environmental impact.

The analysis – which concluded that TDF producers could realistically reduce their carbon footprint by up to 45% – was possible due to close collaboration between faculty and students at Cornell and the nonprofit Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), You said.

The findings were published in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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