Life cycle impacts and environmental fate of pharmaceuticals: Examining the life cycle

Drivers towards whole-process thinking

When considering the sustainability impact of pharmaceuticals, LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) discussions are often dominated by the impact of chemical synthesis. However, the customers and stakeholders of the pharmaceutical industry – e.g. the UK National Health Service (NHS), Swedish Medicinal Products Agency –  are keen to focus not only on the environmental impact of the synthesis of the API, but on the whole product process  all the way to the finished product delivered to the patient. For example, Figure 1 shows the carbon footprint breakdown of the NHS, where the greatest contributing division is procurement – the goods and services brought in. A more detailed breakdown indicated that pharmaceuticals are the major contributing factor (Figure 1).

The carbon footprint figures for the NHS in 2004 are shown in Figure 2.  By comparing the figures of 2012 to those of 2004, the data suggests that over this time, the carbon contribution of pharmaceuticals has increased by ~20%. This is not as a result of less sustainable manufacturing but is due to the changes in population demographics. The increasing population and an increasing aged population results in a greater demand for services of such organisations. This poses a real dilemma in reducing total carbon footprint in the face of increasing patient numbers and demand.

Figure 2: Breakdown of the NHS Carbon footprint by sector for 2004 [1]

  1. NHS carbon footprint reports (Last accessed: March, 2016).