Q&A with Adam Carter, global product manager for Thermo Fisher Scientific

Adam Carter discusses the causes and potential solutions to the pharma industry's sustainability issues.

Sustainability is becoming one of the most important issues that various industries are facing, including the pharma industry. Adam Carter, global product manager for Thermo Fisher Scientific spoke with Pharm Exec about ways the industry can improve.

(Pharm Exec): What steps have scientists taken historically to reduce cross contamination during their experiments?

Carter: Historically, there have been issues in the biosciences with unintended contamination that can derail costly experiments and waste researcher’s valuable time. In order to reduce the risk of contamination, the biosciences have widely adopted single-use plastics (e.g., bags, tubes, vials, pipettes, bottles, etc.). These plastics are used, and then disposed of as hazardous waste, offering an efficient and cost-effective way to reduce the impact of contamination in experiments.

Plastic waste can become contaminated with the biologics/chemicals during research and production–which creates roadblocks for standard recycling. Therefore, hazardous waste generated in the biosciences must be sterilized before it reaches the landfill, which requires excess energy usage before disposal and impacts the recyclable nature of the plastic.

(Pharm Exec): What steps can labs take to reduce environmental impact

Carter: Reducing the environmental impact of plastic waste comes down to the traditional waste reduction triangle: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Additional steps labs can take to reduce their environment impact may include:

  1. Establish a sustainability culture through employee training, engagement, and education to drive toward energy and waste reduction goals. The use of proven benchmark sustainability programs, such as My Green Lab’s Freezer Challenge, can help.
  2. Don’t give up on recycling and work with suppliers to ensure single use plastics are as easily recyclable as possible. Labs can also elect to contract with specialty waste reduction companies that can help upcycle single use plastics into salable products, such as composite lumber, speed bumps, and shipping palettes.
  3. Implement shipping and packaging material re-use programs to promote sustainability, focusing on using recycled and recyclable packaging where possible.
  4. Ensure proper maintenance of equipment in-use and look to retire aged, inefficient equipment. Both are critical to energy reduction. Promote upgrading aged equipment to more environmentally friendly equipment where possible, such as hydrocarbon coolants and products with the Accountability, Consistency, and Transparency (ACT) label. This informative marking brings a new level of environmental transparency to purchases by listing key sustainability metrics and providing clear, third-party verified information about the labeled products.
  5. Invest in facility improvements such as light-emitting diode (L.E.D.) lighting, low flow water, and energy efficient HVAC systems–all are unsung heroes of reduced environmental impacts.

(Pharm Exec) How do pharma companies compare to other industries in regard to generating plastic waste?

Carter: The ease of use, combined with the quality of products designed to protect against contamination have seen the widespread usage of single-use plastics in labs and at pharma companies. However, the largest contributors to plastic waste comes from the oil, gas, and chemical industries as well as consumer plastics/food beverage industries.1

(Pharm Exec): How did bioscience departments become so dependent on disposable equipment?

Carter: Plastics are easy-to-use, require little processing time for the end user, and are usually not cost prohibitive. They also help reduce the risk of unintended contamination. While costs of plastics add up, most labs have weighted cost vs. time (time to sterilize reusable materials, time lost to unintended contamination, time to wash/clean materials, etc.) and have quite commonly concluded that the monetary cost of plastics is easier on the lab than the time lost.

Furthermore, the equipment and materials required for advanced research and storage are driving the dependency. Ultra-Low temperature freezers for example, run at -80C 24 hours a day, all year round and single-use media allows for substantial efficiency gains regarding discovery and development. It is encouraging that we are seeing a movement toward green labs and collective efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of bioscience facilities through sustainability programs and more energy efficient equipment.

(Pharm Exec): How quickly can the industry adopt solutions to this issue?

Carter: The industry is already adopting solutions and changes can happen almost immediately. Replacing and upgrading aged equipment, setting annual sustainability targets, and supporting employee training around waste reduction are actions that can be put in place relatively quickly. Individuals in the lab can do little things every day to reduce the upstream generation of waste. As an industry, the biosciences need to invest in technologies to treat and recycle these plastics downstream as well.

It will take a multifaceted approach to truly address the entirety of generated waste, but if the desire to truly reduce the environmental impact is embraced by the industry, these changes are well within reach. With greater adoption of eco-friendly policies and practices by labs and manufacturers alike, the laboratory research community can reduce waste, lower energy consumption, and play an active role in healing the planet to provide a cleaner, healthier, and safer future for all.

References

  1. https://www.minderoo.org/plastic-waste-makers-index/findings/executive-summary/