Given its high carbon footprint, the pharmaceutical industry has an undeniably substantial impact on the environment. Also given that the fear of hurtling towards the point of no return in terms of climate change is reaching pandemic proportions, pharma companies are facing immense pressure to transform their operations – and not just control the damage they’ve already done, but also take actions that bring about real positive change.

While several manufacturers are definitely stepping up their efforts to rise to the demand, the ever-increasing pressure for faster, more transparent and accountable action is bound to take a toll unless managed effectively. At worst, unless managed, the future of the pharma industry may well be more uncertain than ever before.

Optimise, don’t compromise. Your machines will tell you how.

Pharma is an industry of excesses! On one hand, you have high prices, and on the other hand, there’s high cost. When consumers and regulatory authorities the world over push for lower prices, little thought is spared for the inherently unpredictable risk and exorbitant cost (often running into billions) involved in every stage of drug manufacturing – right from discovery through to testing, manufacturing and distribution. Unlike in other industries, since every step in the drug development cycle tends to be critical, it’s understandable that any self-respecting manufacturer would baulk at the mere idea of cutting corners.

But what if you could without affecting any part of the process? What if you could, at one look, see every wastage, every redundancy, every opportunity to save energy – well in advance to do something about it? What if you could preserve profitability while at the same time reducing product cost and price, and all you have to do is listen to your machines?

Flag the known troublemakers. Turn to your data for the devious ones.

It’s common knowledge that cleaning is a highly energy-intensive part of pharma manufacturing. From vials, tubes and jars, to bottles, vessels and equipment, the sheer magnitude of cleaning required eats up about two-thirds of the water used in manufacturing facilities. Add to that the hot water/steam required for sterilisation, and you begin to get an idea of why those costs look so skewed at the end of the year.

Ventilation, too, is a known culprit. Air within drug manufacturing facilities frequently needs to be moved around, compressed, purified, heated/cooled, or humidified/dehumidified, leading to astronomical energy bills.

True, there’s little that can be done by way of modifying or omitting these processes. So, what can be done? The trick lies in not trying to change critical processes, but in understanding them well enough to manage their energy consumption. That starts with going back to the drawing board – with actually looking at all the data your machines have been churning out for years now.

While you know the overarching areas where you incur the highest energy bills, your machine data is what will tell you about those little crevices where you can rediscover pockets of lost energy – and bring them back to put them to use. For instance, if there’s a blower somewhere left on when it’s not in use, you see it. If water from a final rinse is discharged as effluence, you see it too.

Three essential steps to seal your energy gaps

Though sustainability is of course a long-term corporate initiative, there are several steps that can be taken at a day-to-day operational level to get started right away. All these steps will eventually fall into one or more of the following three buckets:

1. Reduce: This is inevitably the first step of any sustainability initiative. While it’s absolutely essential to adhere to standard requirements and regulations, know that at least the requirements are dynamic. For instance, does the humidity in a room have to be maintained at a constant 50%–60%? Most likely not. By simply reducing the setting to 40%–50% or even lower whenever possible, you’ll immediately cut back your energy costs considerably – and without even spending on new (expensive) equipment. Similarly, avoiding partial load operation, minimising voltage imbalance and opting to switch off any light, fan, or machine when not in use can also have a cumulatively positive effect.

2. Reuse: The next opportunity to optimise energy lies in reusing it. Reusing water is a brilliant way to cut consumption as well as wastage, not to mention cost (of either procuring water or treating it for regulatory compliance). A lot of the water wasted in pharma manufacturing is considerably cleaner than it was to begin with (for instance, double or triple filtered/distilled water). Also, water discharged from one process may still be fit for consumption in another process. For instance, purified water from the final rinse of equipment could still be great for the pre rinse of other equipment, or for circulation in the cooling towers.

3. Recharge: The final step is to improve energy sources. This could involve shifting to CO2 neutral energy sources, switching from natural gas to heat pumps for heating and water chillers to cooling towers for water cooling, or even installing solar panels on your roof. Larger companies may choose to go the Johnson & Johnson/GSK/Novartis way and develop wind farms.

The question is no longer whether you can – it’s whether you will

While energy optimisation initiatives already exist at a high, corporate level for most pharma companies, they just don’t yield the results we need to start seeing. Sure, broad guidelines on which ventilation system to procure, or whether or not to have heat recovery for a system may ‘set the mood’, but these are just passive initiatives.

The real, effective, and continued results come from a much more proactive, sustained outlook and effort – one that measures and analyses everyday operations to identify ever-present opportunities for optimisation…and most importantly, seeks to progressively improve on these goals in time with the changing normal.

Ben Churchill is chief revenue officer at Crowley Carbon