From drug pollution to circular economy: The different sides of the pharmaceutical industry.

23. 5 .2022, Martina Campora

Have you ever wondered how sustainable the pharmaceutical industry is?

Bordering between the irrational and the absurd, the pharmaceutical industry, whose primary goal is our health, is at the same time one of the most polluting industries on the planet. According to a study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the pharmaceutical industry's emissions exceed those of the automobile industry by 55 percent.

But why is the pharmaceutical industry not often associated with pollution?
This cognitive bias has been triggered by communication activities filled with greenwashing that have distorted perceptions of the industry.
In fact, many of us are unaware that the problem of drug pollution is not limited to production per se but also lies in the dispersion of drug residues into the environment. This occurs not only through their improper disposal, but also due to drugs’ dispersion in wastewater. Through their elimination through our bodies, the residues of the drugs we ingest end up in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans.


In addition to the abovementioned, animal farming also plays its role. Similar to the life cycle of human drugs, antibiotics administered to animals also contribute to the presence of drugs in drinking water. Their concentration is a global problem. Although developed countries have better purification systems than developing countries, drug concentrations in drinking water are found in both the former and the latter, predominantly in metropolitan cities.

This not only causes environmental impacts but also acts negatively on our health. For example, the presence of drugs within our drinking water increases the possibility of contracting certain diseases such as endocrine disruption or growth inhibition and also adversely affects the effectiveness of therapies by strengthening the resistance of microorganisms to antibiotics. Besides being a threat to people's health, contaminated waters also aggravate the physical condition of various animal species.

Regarding pollution from the production process, greenhouse gas emissions from the pharmaceutical industry are very high. Estimating them is not easy because not all companies are willing to report their direct and indirect emissions data consistently. For example, in the above study, only 25 multinational companies out of more than 200 allowed their emissions data to be viewed.


How can pharmaceutical companies decrease their environmental impact?

Green chemistry

Through the use of LCA, green chemistry aims to study the life cycle of drugs by reducing or even eliminating the generation of harmful substances. Green chemistry includes more organic resources, starting from the more sustainable use of resources. Both production and the final product must not involve the formation of hazardous substances that persist in the environment.
The more remarkable development of sustainable drug solutions allows companies to dramatically decrease adverse effects on people and the environment.

Use of secondary raw materials and waste recycling

Although waste from the pharmaceutical industry poses challenges for recycling, enterprises must always consider landfills as a last alternative. Setting limits toward zero for landfilled waste must be a prerogative of the industry.
Technology is increasing the ease of finding partners with whom to establish industrial symbiosis collaborations. For example, on Cyrkl, several pharmaceutical companies have found more sustainable solutions for their waste. Among them, the company Zentiva, thanks to Cyrkl, was able to reuse packaging. HSE manager Daniel Serek describes the marketplace as 

"a reliable partner we work with to achieve our ambitions. We at Zentiva care about our planet and use this tool to find partners to sell our materials that we would otherwise have to destroy. We like the website and its ease of navigation."


Renewable energy and zero-emissions goals

To decrease their environmental impact, companies in the industry should quantify their greenhouse gas emissions in terms of energy, transportation, materials, and waste.
Adopting renewables can be the first step toward decreasing emissions. However, it must be combined with a 360-degree view of the company to determine how to reduce environmental impacts in each specific case. To increase sustainability, it is necessary to impose emission reduction targets in order to monitor achievements. However, if the company does not have sufficient knowledge on the subject, it is good to rely on experienced consultants who can offer more sustainable alternatives. Working with an outside consultant also allows the company to view its management from a different perspective, increasing its value.


The packaging of a pharmaceutical product must facilitate three conditions: customer satisfaction, logistics, and environmental friendliness. Three interlinked aspects that must be integrated with each other.
Regarding the first aspect, the packaging must be clear, attractive, but also contain all the necessary information for its proper disposal.
Following their consumption, the packages must be designed to be easily recycled. For example, through the use of simply separable materials. The process of recovering drug packaging is critical. In order to be easily reused, pharmaceutical companies may also consider developing projects to recover used packaging themselves.
From both logistical and environmental perspectives, packaging must also be designed to be as space-saving as possible.
Finally, sustainable packaging design requires an LCA analysis. Starting with the careful choice of raw materials (preferring the use of secondary raw materials) to everything from the end-of-life environmental impact of the product.

Sustainable multinationals can also exist in the pharmaceutical industry: the example of Novo Nordisk

A giant in the pharmaceutical industry, the Danish company Novo Nordisk is one of the world's largest manufacturers of insulin. Active in 168 countries, it has more than 47,000 employees in 80 offices.
Having always had a focus on sustainability, the company sets ambitious sustainability goals by investing in cutting-edge technologies.
Its environmental strategy, called "Circular for Zero," is based on the principles of the circular economy and aims to zero emissions throughout its value chain by 2045.
From 2020, all energy used for production will come from renewable sources, but not only that. Novo Nordisk will require its suppliers to do the same by 2030. In addition, the company aims to have zero Co2 emissions from operations and transportation by 2030. The company is committed to designing products that can be reused or recycled while also minimizing raw material consumption through more efficient waste management. Their circular economy orientation leads them to recycle 96 percent of their waste while throwing only 0.06 percent into landfills.

Ranging from better waste management to circular economy projects, the pharmaceutical company is trying hard to limit its environmental impact. Among the various cutting-edge projects implemented by the company, a very interesting one managed to give a second life to used insulin pens. The company was forced to throw these medical devices mainly in the trash despite being composed of 77 percent plastic. Although regulations vary widely from country to country, the Danish giant has not given up developing a machine that can separate each component to reuse the plastic from the pens, the glass from the vials and the metal in the springs. In collaboration with a design firm, plastic is reused to make office chairs and the glass vials to create lamps. Novo Nordisk alone produces 600 million insulin pens a year, and reusing them allows it to reduce its environmental impact significantly.However, the main problem with implementing the project lies in the difficulty of recovering the used pens. The Danish company has already launched several pilot collection projects in Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Brazil to address the challenge.


What can we do about it?

In conclusion, having become aware of the huge environmental impact caused by the pharmaceutical industry, each of us can take actions that contribute to the protection of our environment and our health, including:

  • More careful disposal of medicines
  • Preferring medicines with more sustainable packaging
  • Making responsible use of medications
  • Evaluating homeopathic and natural options
  • Preferring organic food


‐ Martina Campora

Cyrkl in the media