What’s the formula for sustainability in the pharma sector?
Zeb Ahmed, CEO of BES - the specialist in design and construction of cGMP compliant pharmaceutical facilities, discusses the growing demand for sustainable built assets, why the trend is escalating and what can be done to enhance sustainability.
While Part L building regulations have been driving improvement in the residential and commercial sectors for some time, historically the pharmaceutical sector has accepted that high energy use is inevitable. From R&D, through to manufacture, processing, packaging and storage, the industry has accepted that, in order to achieve high levels of cleanliness, efficiency and compliance, built assets had to be heavily serviced. Indeed, many facilities have been over specified in the name of futureproofing and resilience.
But times are changing. As the climate crisis escalates, so too does scrutiny on how companies of all sizes will do what they can to address the problem. The government has set a date of 2050 for the UK to become net carbon neutral – just 28 years away – and the pharmaceutical supply chain is under just as much pressure as any other sector to set achievable goals and measure success in milestones along the route map to carbon zero.
The challenge for pharmaceutical operators is that any carbon reduction through energy savings must be achieved while maintaining the same high standards of quality assurance and compliance. Consequently, those responsible for designing and delivering built assets – from concept to completion – must work creatively and collaboratively to embed sustainability without sacrificing performance.
Catalysts for change
Depending on the size and type of facility, energy accounts for 60- 80% of the annual running costs of controlled pharmaceutical environments, predominately due the HVAC systems involved. As it stands, there is no mandatory guidance in place for pharmaceutical companies to reduce their energy consumption and carbon emissions. However, there are several catalysts for change.
Perhaps the most commercially pressing issue is cost. Energy price rises have been grabbing the headlines and, with industry unable to benefit from any of the price caps provided to help consumers, specification decisions made now could have a significant impact on operational costs and viability over the next few years.
To address this, we need to encourage a culture shift, changing the focus from capex costs to whole-life costs. Sustainability driven processes, building services and architectural solutions can often be more expensive at capex, but investment decisions that don’t consider the whole life costs, often result in increased spend over the asset’s lifespan.
Where a project is too capex constrained for to allow more sustainable design, it’s important to consider how design decisions can be made to enable retrofit of energy efficient improvements later down the line.
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical sector needs to start preparing now for mandatory Carbon Reduction Plans (CRP), which are already required for any public sector projects valued at £5m or more. Plans need to be deliverable and measurable, with a clear baseline from which defined carbon reduction goals can be monitored and achieved. While CRPs are not a requirement for commercial businesses at the moment, legislation in place to drive environmental best practice for commercial facilities, such as the Climate Change Levy (CCL) and the EU Emissions Trading Systems (EU ETS), is likely to become stricter. Consequently any operators that cannot demonstrate the steps they are taking to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions are likely to be penalised if they do not prioritise carbon reduction.
Indeed, many pharmaceutical companies are already prioritising carbon reduction, not only in anticipation of legislation, but also because their corporate and social responsibility (CSR) performance affects their bottom line. CSR is no longer a nice-to-have; it is a competitive advantage. Moreover, as suppliers to the NHS which has pledged to become the world’s first net zero health service, pharmaceutical operators can expect increased scrutiny on their environmental performance.
Embedding sustainability at concept level
To be successful in driving down carbon emissions, the pharmaceutical industry needs to embed sustainability goals at every level, beginning with process design. Moreover, energy efficiencies in process design need to be factored into the R&D phase, so that the established and approved energy efficient process can be scaled up. If sustainability is not considered until the process is commercialised, it is usually too late to implement changes that could achieve energy savings because of the issues this could cause with product approvals and licensing.
The most effective approach to delivering energy savings as part of the process design is by optimising the mass and energy balance. Too often, over-specification of mass results in a need for more heating and cooling. Conversely, if the process can minimise mass, both energy consumption and energy wastage are minimised. By working with the scientists developing the product from the earliest stages of the project, we can influence the built solution at RIBA stage 0 (concept). We can then provide optioneering, comparing a capex-based cost model with whole life costs and payback period on the sustainability elements to support evidence-based decision making with modelled data on energy costs.
The other key area that must be considered for more sustainable process design is waste reduction and resource utilisation. While continuous processing is more energy efficient, it can often be at odds with the small batch requirements of pharmaceutical and biotech production. However, batch campaigns can provide a viable middle ground, enabling semi-continuous processing during scheduled production periods to limit energy waste.
Single use technologies are another area that should be considered at the process design stage and, once again, modelling based on whole-life costs is critical to supporting a business case for the most appropriate solution. Single use technologies are more expensive but come pre-cleaned and sterilised, which opens the door to opex savings on process utilities systems and associated cleaning equipment, along with reduced energy consumption and reduced staffing requirements.
At the heart of any CRP-based approach to sustainability lies the need to monitor and measure energy and water consumption, so that opportunities to learn and improve can be analysed and implemented – both in the existing asset and in any future projects. In-line metering and monitoring should be part of the specification at build because this allows a baseline to be measured and improvements to be plotted. In-line equipment is also much more accurate and reliable than retrofitted devices.
Ultimately, sustainability in pharmaceutical environments is only deliverable if we challenge conventional thinking – throughout the research and delivery phases – and commit to embedding positive change from concept to completion, with measurable results. Only then can learning be exponential and savings provide a business case for continued best practice.