Building a sustainable global pharmaceutical operation extends far beyond the reduction of CO2 emissions, water and electricity in manufacturing facilities. Companies must consider everything from logistics to packaging materials to the chemical processes involved in the earliest stages of drug development – and even the energy used to send emails between employees. But in an industry governed by tight regulations across every element of the supply chain, making meaningful changes to any one of these processes cannot be done overnight. Sustained, coordinated effort is required, and not only from the obvious stakeholders. Pharmacists, couriers, employees and the patients themselves all play an important role. Merck Healthcare is taking a threepronged approach to reducing its environmental impact: products, logistics and patients. While each area has its own dedicated initiatives, they all play into one another and are geared towards the company’s one overarching goal – to reach carbon neutrality by 2040.

Iris Obermueller, who has been global director of environment, health and safety at Merck Healthcare for the past eight years, says it’s been a process even to reach the point where the environment is considered as important as the health and safety aspect of her role. “This function has evolved significantly during my tenure, and not only towards giving more space to the environmental dimension,” she says. “It has also shifted from a complianceoriented way of working to a more engaging and voluntary approach. It used to be a standalone function and now it is recognised that this dimension is every employee’s responsibility. It has become much more integrated across the business.”

Merck’s approach

Firstly, and on the product front, Obermueller is most excited about the introduction of new, more sustainable packaging formats. “Some of our medicines are available as injector pens. These used to be packaged in a large box with plastic blisters, which meant we were shipping a lot of air,” she explains. “It made no sense from neither an ecological nor an economic perspective.”

“We set out to convert medicine shipments from air to sea without compromising the quality of our medicines or the service level to patients.”

Merck Healthcare set itself a target to redesign the secondary packaging from scratch, which involved retrofitting existing assembly lines. The new solution is 40% smaller and 100% free of plastic. “With this new packaging format, we are decreasing transport and cold storage volumes and using less raw materials, which translates into a 33% reduction of the CO2 emissions associated with the logistics of these medicines, and the elimination of 180t of plastic waste each year,” Obermueller says, “In addition, storing these medicines is now more convenient for patients, taking up less space at home.”

In terms of logistics, new packaging formats not only have a significant knock-on impact, but Merck Healthcare has also launched several logistics-only initiatives, designed to reduce the environmental impact of the transport of medicines across the globe. Since 2018, the company has made significant progress. “Five years ago, we were shipping around 65% of our products by air,” Obermueller notes. “We set out to convert medicine shipments from air to sea without compromising the quality of our medicines or the service level to patients.”

By 2021, the company was able to deliver 80% of its medicines by sea, allowing them to save 10,600t of CO2 in that year alone – the equivalent of neutralising the CO2 emissions of 20,000 passengers flying from Paris to New York. “We are committed to sustaining this annual reduction every year moving forward,” Obermueller says.

Merck Healthcare has also been experimenting with sustainable fuels, in collaboration with DHL. During a two-month pilot program, DHL facilitated carbon emissions reductions in the delivery of medicines to 25 destinations across the Asia Pacific region via air and ocean freight by replacing fossil fuels with sustainable marine and aviation fuels. This avoided 370t of CO2 emissions, which translates to a 65% decrease considering end-toend transportation.

Finally, introducing new packaging formats for pharmaceuticals is not a simple process. “Active compounds can be sensitive to light or humidity or they might interact with other materials,” Obermueller notes. “We need to preserve the proper administration of our medicines and their integrity, which means changes cannot be implemented overnight. They must be reviewed and approved by health authorities.”

For this reason, Merck Healthcare has implemented a series of pilot programmes focused on reducing the environmental impact of packaging that has already left the pharmacy, hospital or doctor’s office. In Denmark, for example, the company has teamed up with Novo Nordisk, Eli Lilly and Sanofi to give patients the opportunity to return empty injection pens, which are dismantled, and the plastics used to make household items. A similar take-back scheme in Germany allows patients to give back empty medical plastic blisters.

Programmes like this, however, are much easier said than done, requiring strong partnerships, not only with other pharmaceutical companies, but also with pharmacists, local recycling infrastructure providers and patients. “We cannot do this alone,” Obermueller stresses. “We also need to work closely with pharmacies to organise the collection of the used injection pens and empty medical blisters, usually through highly visible boxes, as well as training pharmacists and ensuring they are engaged with the programme. We also need to partner with third parties such as recycling experts. The multicompany pilot was launched in Denmark because of the existing recycling infrastructure in the country.”

The human factor, she stresses, is key to the success of programs like this. “The greatest science and technology is worth nothing if we don’t use it. The only way to make it happen is to engage our colleagues and our suppliers. These examples might look very simple on paper, but thousands of little things must be solved to make them happen.”

The human factor

Within the business itself, engagement is equally important. One of the biggest lessons Obermueller has learned over the years is that the only way to build a sustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing operation is with the commitment of every single employee, from labs to office-based staff, from the shop floor to the members of the C-Suite. “It takes a top-down and a bottom-up approach,” she says. “That means role modelling from top management but also ideas coming from employees.”

Merck Healthcare’s Green Teams are a case in point. Made up of employees who have a passion for sustainability, these groups drive environmental awareness and engagement across the company by implementing training programmes and local projects designed to reduce the ecological footprint of specific operations.

There are currently Green Teams in 16 sites across 11 countries. The first was in Aubonne, Switzerland, where, since its inception, simple initiatives have been making a big difference. For example, the Green Team suggested replacing plastic water bottles with water fountains directly connected to the municipal water supply. Together with other employee ideas that have been implemented at the site, this has resulted in a reduction of 15t of waste and 366t of CO2 emissions per year.

There have also been non-site-specific suggestions from Green Teams that got Obermueller thinking. “One Green Team member asked me if I knew about the environmental pollution caused by sending emails all the time; I had no clue,” she admits. “We ended up talking more about this and I learned that a single email that is solely text-based emits 4g of CO2; conscious digital behaviours can also contribute to the reduction of our ecological footprint.”

Manufacturing and chemistry systems

Simple changes to manufacturing operations also contribute significantly to reducing pharmaceutical businesses’ carbon footprint. Powering down heating and cooling systems at the weekend, reusing the water from facilities’ cooling systems and reusing palettes several times instead of disposing of them immediately are easy wins that can have a big impact. “Of course, in this world of legislation, we need to be very sensitive and make sure that even changes like this do not compromise the quality of our methods,” Obermueller stresses.

On the green chemistry front, it is an even more important consideration. “We are still examining the processes that take place very early in the drug development process,” Obermueller says. “The whole industry is looking at how we can collaborate together to be greener in our processes and really look at ‘sustainability by design’, but it is still early days.”

“We ended up talking more about this and I learned that a single email that is solely textbased emits 4g of CO2.”

The important point is to be adaptable to new opportunities — and always, always, always measure. Merck Healthcare reviews its KPIs, including those on wastewater and greenhouse gas emissions, every quarter at the production site level and in global leadership meetings. “We are always looking at where we are and how we can evolve, and revisiting our measures accordingly,” Obermueller says.

Building a sustainable operation takes patience, commitment and cooperation — and a measured, step-by-step approach. For the foreseeable future at Merck Healthcare, that looks like evolving the product, logistics and patient initiatives that are already in place: using fewer raw materials, continuing to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transportation and building on the lessons learnt through European take-back schemes. None of it will happen overnight. But good things rarely do.