The Sustainability Equation: Can Analytical Chemists Tip the Balance?

by | Dec 5, 2023

A new report quantifying the climate impact of pharmaceutical and biotech industries reveals a rise in carbon footprints, underscoring the urgent need for enhanced green efforts.

Despite major biotech and pharmaceutical companies advancing towards zero carbon goals and adopting the UN Race to Zero campaign, a new study by leading sustainability organization My Green Lab shows that close to 90% of the sector's public companies still lack climate commitments compatible with the 1.5˚C climate benchmark established in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

In a revealing conversation with Separation Science, James Connelly, the CEO of My Green Lab, discusses the pivotal role of analytical chemists in shaping a sustainable future by embracing key innovations and educational shifts.

Scope 3 Emission Challenges

My Green Lab's 2023 Carbon Impact of Biotech & Pharma Report, analyzing data from 226 publicly listed and 147 privately-held biotech and pharma companies, delivers a groundbreaking assessment of the industry's carbon footprint. Initially introduced in 2021, this study was among the first to comprehensively quantify Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. Scope 1 encompasses direct emissions from owned sources, Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from purchased energy, and Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions across the company's value chain.

The 2023 report discloses a mixed picture of the biotech and pharma sector's environmental efforts. The industry's total carbon impact has risen from 3.9% in 2021 to 5% in 2022, with updated methodologies estimating that close to 200 million tons of CO2 were released in 2022. Notably, Scope 3 emissions, primarily released from purchased goods and services, are 4.6 times higher than Scope 1 and 2 combined. 

However, the report also identifies several collective initiatives launched by major companies to address Scope 3 emissions. These initiatives include focusing on supplier requirements, renewable energy purchasing, active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing, and credible third-party certification. These efforts aim to drive emissions reductions across the value chain, especially targeting companies in the Asia-Pacific region, which typically have high carbon intensity and have been slow to set zero carbon targets​​.

It’s the customers that truly drive these companies—with sufficient push and widespread engagement, you can get those deeper supply chain changes.

Individual Impact on Sustainability

While significant focus has been placed on sustainability measures at the organizational level, individual chemists also have a vital role to play in driving eco-friendly practices in their daily work. Connelly notes that taking simple actions, such as using the ACS Solvent Selection tool to find greener and safer alternatives to conventional processes, can be an easy first step to take.

“Selecting better solvents is a great opportunity to reduce your impact without having to engage with your supply chain,” he says. “There are some new bio-based solvents that have a significantly reduced carbon footprint compared to their oil-based peers. You can also recycle solvents or find a way to dispose of them more effectively.”

Connelly acknowledges that the real challenge for chemists arises when they peer into their intricate networks and initiate dialogues with vendors about their contributions to environmental impact reduction. This includes exploring options such as bioplastics or seeking third-party verification to ensure sustainable practices.

“It’s the customers that truly drive these companies,” he observes. “With sufficient push and widespread engagement, you can get those deeper supply chain changes.”

Not all renewable solutions are automatically beneficial: encourage manufacturers to seek third-party evaluations, ensuring their products favorably compare to established baselines.

Verifying Environmental Claims

When asked about innovations that could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of analytical chemistry, Connelly highlights the growing relevance of microfluidics. The trend towards miniaturization in equipment and analysis promises substantial environmental benefits. “The smaller the equipment, the smaller the sample size, and consequently, the lower the carbon footprint,” he explains.

However, Connelly points out that while microfluidics is a step in the right direction, the industry must also focus on transitioning to renewable sources for commonly used materials such as solvents, plastics, and reagents. He also emphasizes the importance of ensuring the soundness behind environmental claims. 

“Not all renewable solutions are automatically beneficial,” he cautions. “You need to encourage manufacturers to seek third-party evaluations, ensuring their products favorably compare to established baselines.”

In line with this approach to sustainability, Connelly’s nonprofit, My Green Lab, offers a certification program that has become a global benchmark for lab sustainability. This program, addressing key areas such as energy, water, waste, and materials, guides scientists in implementing sustainable practices. Recognized in the UNFCCC High-Level Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthroughs, My Green Lab Certification sets a goal for 95% of labs in leading pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to attain the highest certification level by 2030. 

For any analytical chemist entering the job market now, I would say get smart about sustainability. It’s a global trend, and we’re confident it’s going to be a leading industry.

Bridging the Educational Gap

Connelly emphasized the crucial role of green chemistry education, particularly the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry, in guiding analysts toward sustainability in the coming decade. “Some might think green chemistry isn't relevant to them, but if you’re using liquids, it definitely applies,” he notes, highlighting the importance of an educational gap. My Green Lab's Accredited Professional (AP) program seeks to address this issue through its online curriculum in green chemistry. Connelly's insights reflect the program's mission to equip chemists with the necessary skills and knowledge for a sustainable future in the industry.

“For any analytical chemist entering the job market now, I would say get smart about sustainability,” he advises. “It’s a global trend, and we’re confident it’s going to be a leading industry—find a way to distinguish yourself as professional.”

The takeaway from Connelly's insights and the My Green Lab 2023 Carbon Impact of Biotech & Pharma Report is clear: while industry-wide actions are critical, the role of individual chemists in embracing sustainability cannot be overstated. Each small step taken in the lab, from green chemistry practices to mindful resource usage, demonstrates that change is a collaborative effort.

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