Guide to a greener pharmaceutical supply chain

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As focus shifts towards reducing carbon emissions, the pharmaceutical industry finds itself facing a dilemma in maintaining strict safety standards while improving its environmental credentials.

The suppliers and users of temperature controlled packaging systems are under increasing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of cold chain shipping. The widespread introduction of formal corporate social responsibility policies, together with new customer expectations and more strict regulations, mean that developing a suitable packaging system is more challenging than ever.


But can a resource and energy intensive area like cold chain ever become truly sustainable?

Installation of renewable energy technology at the warehouse and utilizing alternative fuels during distribution are also avenues being explored for reducing the supply chain's carbon footprint.

Classically, the industry has doubted that will be fully green—but they indeed can be a lot greener—as tech develops along the way we may get closer than we first expected.

Cold Transport

A surge in demand for temperature sensitive goods together with global warming has led to an increase in cold transportation. The resulting pressures have produced a swath of technological developments designed to maintain unbroken cold chains. As a consequence, treatments such as cryosurgery or cryotherapy have advanced thanks to ultra-low temperature technologies.

The International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR) states that ‘heat-sensitive health products, kept at a controlled temperature (particularly between 2°C and 8°C) have experienced a tremendous market extension all over the world. The turnover of such products increases by more than 20 per cent annually. While these medications represent only 2 per cent of the total volume of medicines, their value approaches 15 percent globally.’

The transportation of these refrigerated healthcare products can be diverse as they move along the cold chain from the manufacturer to the distribution center and beyond. It is estimated there are 4 million refrigerated road vehicles (vans, trucks, semi-trailers or trailers) in operation worldwide. These vehicles are subject to ECE/Trans/249 (“ATP”) regulations (UN, 20155) which require minimum insulation performance and heat extraction rates to ensure cold-chain integrity.


The Global Refrigerated Trailer Market is expected to stand at US$7171.4 million by the end of 2021. Despite the growth, the environmental impact from transport refrigeration unit vehicles could hand EU members a bill of around €22 billion over the next 10 years.

Refrigerated air cargo is most commonly used for medicines kept between 15°C and 25°C (WHO, 2014). Temperature control is either maintained by passive systems, insulation material around the commodity, or active systems, packaging around the commodity plus refrigerants.

There are an estimated 1.2 million refrigerated containers (reefers) globally. Despite this, the total number of reefer ships is in decline in favor of container ships as the ocean carrier market consolidates.  Reefer ships usually comprise of four refrigerated holds and power supplies for containers.

According to Hannes Lässig, VP of global head of pharma sea freight at Kuehne + Nagel, just three per cent of reefers presented for shipment contain drug products.

Despite significant developments and modernization within the refrigeration and air conditioning industry over the past 30 years, cold transport modes are on the whole using HFC-134a or HFC-404A refrigerants and HCFC-22 on reefer ships. A move towards zero ODP (Ozone Depletion Potential) refrigerants and low Co2 producing vehicles is now seen as the inevitable next move.

The road transport industry has seen speedy adoption of alternative lower-GWP (Global Warming Potential) gases. However, the container market has faced greater challenges including the availability of continuous alternative gases throughout the supply chain and a lack of technical tools.

Green sustainable city

Despite improvements in emissions, cold transport consumes 20 per cent more fuel than other heavy vehicle types due to refrigeration equipment. This is significant as refrigerated/temperature controlled freight transport accounts for approximately seven per cent of new vehicle and 10 percent of all new trailer registrations in Europe.  A 2011 European Commission study concluded that efficiencies to on-board equipment such as refrigeration units could be up to 50 per cent helping to reduce fuel consumption.

Transportation Refrigeration units are on the whole unregulated and are large polluters. The emissions in question are connected to the premature deaths of 400,000 in the EU and 600,000 in India. Therefore the projected expansion of the global cold chain is likely to have significant environmental and health impacts.

Toby Peters, Chief Executive of Dearman said: "Air pollution accounts for 400,000 premature deaths in Europe each year, so reducing emissions wherever possible has to be a priority. Companies have already invested billions into R&D to make truck and car engines significantly cleaner. But auxiliary engines, including transport refrigeration units, are lagging behind”.

Investigations from Dearman concluded that zero emission transport refrigeration vehicles could shrink these emissions by just over 90 per cent.

The study found that poorly compliant auxiliary diesel engines that power refrigeration systems can emit up to 6x the NOx and 29x the particulate matter of a truck’s Euro6 propulsion engine. These emissions could be cut by 73 per cent and 93 per cent respectively with the use of a zero-emission refrigeration system.

Toby added: "By increasingly moving over to zero-emission alternatives, there is an opportunity to have a major environmental impact without forcing companies to change the way they operate. It could be a small change that makes a big difference."

Green solutions: Network design and warehousing

Healthcare company McKesson used IBM's Supply Chain Sustainability Management Solution (SCSM) to improve its decision making with regard to distribution network modelling, the location of industry and the route the supply chain takes.

The SCSM system is capable of evaluating a site based on its Co2 emissions and the costs related to warehousing and transportation, to boost both the financial and environmentally sustainability of operations.

One example given by the company looked at the advantage of keeping all drugs which require temperature controlled storage in a single central location, rather than being spread out across a number of its facilities. The green distribution system is also able to advise on the best way to deliver products to the customer to reduce McKesson's carbon footprint, for example, by missing out a central warehouse in some cases.

In a bid to increase its sustainable practices, reduce costs and the environmental impact of transport, Baxter International shifted the movement of goods in Europe and the US to intermodal services. With over 35,000 suppliers in more than 100 countries, the company uses its own private fleet and third party transportation services to carry temperature sensitive products. In the move to energy-efficient transportation, shipping containers are now moved from manufacturing facilities by truck, switched to rail or barge for longer distances and then shifted back to truck to complete the delivery. Baxter also looks to increase capacity utilization and uses double-deck trucks to replenish its European distribution centers. It also ensures trucks are at maximum load capacity including through collaboration with business partners. In the US, it partners with FedEx to use its Healthcare Shared Network to transport products with specific temperature requirements.

In 2017, Baxter reduced its worldwide product transport emissions by 25 per cent compared to 2015. It also converted approximately 30 per cent of its road freight to rail during the year.

Reusable packaging


Passive shipping systems in pharmaceutical distribution are commonly seen as the most cost-effective methods for the logistics of medicinal products, because they can use water or dry ice and phase change materials, as opposed to other methods which use battery powered supplies requiring a constant source of energy. These are also more expensive to set up in the first place thanks to their complexity compared to passive methods.

Passive systems, which use methods such as cold water and dry ice in the cold-chain supply to keep pharmaceutical supplies chilled, are far greener than other methods such as active and hybrid systems. Both approaches require a constant power source and need energy to be pulled elsewhere. This results in a method that is less eco friendly.

Green distribution can also be factored into decision making when choosing between single-use and reusable containers. According to American Aerogel Corporation, if you can re-use a packaging system over an extended period of time, it is not only cost-effective in the long run, but also serves to decrease the amount of waste produced. This can only be a good thing for the environment as a whole.

The company believes single-use materials, such as polystyrene, which is damaging to the environment, can be removed from the cold-chain altogether.

Increased pressure for green supply chain management within the pharmaceutical industry has given rise to innovative container alternatives to single use materials. The benefit of wool as a passive additive for temperature controlled logistics is viewed as a sustainable substitute thanks to its biodegradable and recyclable qualities. Furthermore, packaging companies, such as Woolcool, claim the insulated product meets the performance demands of global changing legislation.

However, in terms of distance, disposable supplies, such as expanded polystyrene, are often the more effective choice as they are inexpensive compared to other options.

Nevertheless, this option will tend to only be effective for between 24 and 72 hours. This means that disposable supplies are most effective for taking items on a short-haul or local delivery. For longer distances though, reusable methods such as polyurethane and vacuum insulated packaging will be needed in order to keep the integrity of the temperatures over longer periods of time.

The cost effectiveness of passive shipping systems can also make it more beneficial when it comes to the revalidation of the process under the new EU good distribution practice (GDP) guidelines. The regulation  calls for any faults found in the supply chain to be removed and rectified straight away, with logistics needing to be authorized under its new classification as a regulated practice.

Corporate social responsibility has become a keystone for drug manufacturers as many establish sustainability programs for temperature controlled logistics. Among them is Johnson & Johnson who in 2009 incorporated sustainability into its overall strategy.  The organization’s Earthwards program encompasses all of groups including, medical devices, medicines and consumer goods and delivers a plan for designing and manufacturing more sustainable products. The company has a central strategic design organization that works toward minimizing space and improving packaging efficiency. To date there has been almost a 60 per cent drop in the amount of packaging materials used resulting in an increased reduction in shipping-space utilization. This has translated into fewer trucks needed to transport the product.

Solar energy in pharma

The Global Cold Chain Alliance has noted that the Cold Chain is positioned to take full advantage of solar energy and believes it is even starting to emerge as a key player in this space.

In regards to this resource which can be used to lower power bills, carbon footprints and combat increasing energy prices on a macro scale, the group noted that: “While most sectors can benefit from solar energy, the cold chain is uniquely positioned to take full advantage – and is emerging as a leader in the adoption of this technology”.

The presence of solar tech is indeed prevalent in parts of today’s cold chain. For example in a collaboration with WHO (World Health Organization) and PATH, the nonprofit global health organization, Optimize explored the development of battery free solar direct-drive refrigerators for vaccines within the cold chain. 

With some health centers in developing countries lacking access to constant electricity and gas and kerosene powered refrigerators being phased out, solar powered refrigerators stand as a solid alternative. In 2017 Unicef procured solar direct drive refrigerators believing the option to be more sustainable in maintaining temperature controlled logistics in areas without a reliable source of electricity—which is a key roadblock for many other alternatives.

Although solar powered refrigerators require their battery to be exchanged every 5 years, which can cause major disruption to the devices, the Optimize study inspired the WHO prequalification of 3 battery free solar refrigerators.

Kloosterboer Delta Terminal on the Maasvlakte recently deployed 1800 solar panels on the roof of its cold storage facilities. This installment allows storage at temperatures as low as minus 20 degrees. Yearly, these panels save 140 tons of Co2.

Over the last couple of years, technology has infiltrated the market to help counter solar heat complications in the cold chain. This is seen with TP3 Global’s SilverSkin™ thermal covers which are designed for the protection of cold chain and controlled room temperature shipments. SilverSkin™ is a range of solar material specifically designed to reflect direct sun and prevent air exchange during risk points in the supply chain.

The material has been extensively tested and is available in different cover sizes to suit various skid and air cargo pallet configurations, it can fully encapsulate the freight to defer temperature change to protect against inclement weather and prevent contamination.

Commenting on the reasons for and the impact of solar spikes within the cold chain, Malik Zenti of DuPont explained:

“Solar radiation spikes regularly take place during external air handling operations and, although enormous strides have been made in recent years to improve the integrity of the pharma cool chain, the problem of 'tarmac standing time' has proved a difficult nut to crack. Tarmac standing time is where shipments of temperature-sensitive goods are left standing in fluctuating ambient conditions on the airside apron during the loading, unloading and transfer phases. It has been estimated that up to 5% of all transport events involve a temperature deviation from plan. And, according to IATA, 57 per cent of temperature excursions occur during these 'uncontrolled' air-cargo stages of the distribution process. During such intervals, which are usually unplanned and unanticipated, pharma merchandise can be exposed to exceptional temperatures extremes as a result of the 'greenhouse' effects of solar radiation.”