Sustainable Practices in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing

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The need for sustainability in pharmaceutical manufacturing
Innovative approaches to sustainable manufacturing
Case studies of sustainable pharmaceutical practices
Challenges in implementing sustainable methods
Impact on healthcare and the environment
Future directions in sustainable pharma manufacturing
Further reading

With the treatment of many diseases depending on effective pharmaceuticals, the pollution caused by pharmaceuticals has become an emerging and concerning environmental problem.1 This article will tackle some sustainable practices that can be used in pharmaceutical manufacturing for improved health and environmental benefits.

Pharmaceutical production line. Image Credit: Planar/

Pharmaceutical production line. Image Credit: Planar/

The need for sustainability in pharmaceutical manufacturing

Residues of pharmaceutical products can enter the environment during the manufacturing process, during usage, and disposal. With the growing trend in sustainable practices, the translation of transforming traditional pharmaceutical manufacturing may be critical for the environment.1

Global and regulatory pressures for sustainable practices have led to the European Union producing a strategic approach to address pharmaceuticals in the environment, with aims to work towards a sustainable Europe by 2030, which is also guided by the Sustainable Development Goals. This is due to the environmental burden produced by concentrations of pharmaceuticals in the environment, with residues of many pharmaceuticals being found in various locations, including ground waters, soil, animal tissues, and even drinking water.1

The main objectives of the EU's strategic approach include addressing potential risks from pharmaceutical residues in the environment, which can also contribute to antimicrobial resistance; encouraging innovation to address these concerns; and recycling resources such as water, sewage sludge, and manure while still maintaining access to safe and effective pharmaceutical treatments.1

Innovative approaches to sustainable manufacturing

Green chemistry techniques utilize preferably renewable resources, removing waste and avoiding the use of toxic reagents and solvents in the manufacturing process and application of chemical products.2

This innovative technique focuses primarily on pollution prevention as opposed to waste remediation and characterizes high-performing and cost-effective technology that is safer for both the environment and human health.2,3

John Warner, President and Chief Technology Officer of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry, is a leading chemist and has invented an approach to create molecules more efficiently. He aimed to mimic natural chemical reactions in the manufacturing process to reduce waste and conserve energy.3

Green chemistry programs can increase standards to aid in the manufacturing of profitable technologies that are safe for the environment and non-toxic. This is also beneficial for pharmaceutical companies, with toxic materials being laborious and expensive to create, as well as being associated with more regulations and liability costs.3

Case studies of sustainable pharmaceutical practices

AstraZeneca's sustainability strategy encompasses three pillars, which include access to healthcare, environmental protection as well as ethics and transparency. This pharmaceutical company has aimed to reduce emissions, cutting climate risks as well as developing low-carbon economy and managing water resources sustainably.4

Additionally, AstraZeneca has also stated its plans to accelerate its decarbonization plans 'by more than a decade' with its 'Ambition Zero Carbon' program. This program aims to have zero carbon emissions from global emissions by 2025, ensuring the entire value chain is carbon-negative by 2030.4

They aim to invest up to $1bn to achieve their goals and hope to develop next-generation respiratory inhalers with near-zero Global Warming Potential propellants, with a 90-99% lower environmental footprint than older pressurized meter dose inhalers.4

An updated press release from their company on this novel innovation has stated their first-in-human phase I trial demonstrated similar safety, tolerability, and systemic exposure of active ingredients compared to a conventional inhaler, which may be revolutionary for human health and the environment.5

Challenges in implementing sustainable methods

A challenge for pharmaceutical companies in implementing sustainable methods includes their lack of legal requirements to address social issues that are ailing communities, including disease and environmental destruction.[6]

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) enables companies to address social, economic, and environmental problems; however, while pharmaceutical companies hold a large amount of social responsibility through the medicines they create, a study of many well-known pharmaceutical companies in Europe has demonstrated a large lack of transparency in reporting their CSR.[6]

AstraZeneca's development of next-generation respiratory inhalers may be an example of how to balance product efficacy and sustainability with the goal of innovatively producing greener and more effective products.5

Impact on healthcare and the environment

Can negative environmental impact be reversed? It may be possible at a local level to make substitutions to boost prosperity in countries, as done by the UK during the industrial revolution. However, at a global level, with climate change and biodiversity loss, this impact is irreversible, with no way to return to the start.7

The Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services commented, "Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken …Without such action, there will be a further acceleration in the global rate of species extinction, which is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than it has averaged over the past 10 million years." 7

Exposure to indoor and outdoor air and water pollution has resulted in the loss of nine million lives annually, with millions more suffering from poor health and loss of livelihoods, while pollution-related costs cost approximately $4.6 million annually. Additionally, water-related health costs have resulted in an estimated $140 billion in lost earnings and $56 billion in healthcare costs annually.7

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate has found approximately more than 50% to 90% of global emissions reductions are necessary to meet a climate target that could produce net benefits to the economy, including health benefits from a decrease in urban pollution, traffic congestion, and an increase in efficiency of energy security and supply.7

Future directions in sustainable pharma manufacturing

The use of additive manufacturing (AM) and microfluidics is progressing in the pharmaceutical industry to make these more sustainable. AM enables the production of customizable items, and research and competition in this field ensure this technology will evolve to create cheaper, faster, and more environmentally sustainable approaches to producing items in the pharmaceutical industry.8

The use of microfluidics in recent years has enabled world-leading results for formulation manufacture and component analysis. The reduction of materials used in this process and in wastage would be environmentally beneficial for pharmaceutical companies that can streamline existing technology as a more reachable sustainable objective.8


Sustainable practices for pharmaceutical manufacturing are a necessity with the progressing negative impact on the environment resulting in destructive effects on human health and biodiversity.7]

The use of early action with innovation can aid in preserving human health and ecosystems, with degradation from climate change causing irreversible damage. Therefore, the requirement for reducing carbon emissions and more sustainable approaches for pharmaceutical manufacturing is significant, as set by all global environmental panels.7


  1. European Union Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment. European Commission . Accessed February 5, 2024.
  2. Sheldon RA. Engineering a more sustainable world through catalysis and Green Chemistry. Journal of The Royal Society Interface. 2016;13(116):20160087. doi:10.1098/rsif.2016.0087
  3. Helmuth L. Green Chemistry and the future of Sustainability. Harvard Extension School. August 14, 2023. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  4. Ambition zero carbon. AstraZeneca Press Release. January 22, 2020. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  5. AstraZeneca progresses Ambition Zero Carbon programme with Honeywell partnership to develop next-generation respiratory inhalers. AstraZeneca Press Release. February 22, 2022. Accessed February 5, 2024.
  6. Dănescu T, Popa M-A. Public Health and Corporate Social Responsibility: Exploratory Study on pharmaceutical companies in an emerging market. Globalization and Health. 2020;16(1). doi:10.1186/s12992-020-00646-4
  7. Ekins P, Zenghelis D. The costs and benefits of Environmental Sustainability. Sustainability Science. 2021;16(3):949-965. doi:10.1007/s11625-021-00910-5
  8. Weaver E, O'Hagan C, Lamprou DA. The sustainability of emerging technologies for use in pharmaceutical manufacturing. Expert Opinion on Drug Delivery. 2022;19(7):861-872. doi:10.1080/17425247.2022.2093857

Further Reading


Last Updated: Feb 21, 2024

Marzia Khan

Written by

Marzia Khan

Marzia Khan is a lover of scientific research and innovation. She immerses herself in literature and novel therapeutics which she does through her position on the Royal Free Ethical Review Board. Marzia has a MSc in Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine as well as a BSc in Biomedical Sciences. She is currently working in the NHS and is engaging in a scientific innovation program.


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