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

LCA examples

By examining API LCAs we can understand where carbon footprints and other 'hotspots' are. The first example is an anti-inflammatory API. The carbon footprint breakdown of the product formulated as tablets in a simple blister pack is given in Figure 1 (Tools and assumptions available in Appendix). As can be seen, the API synthesis contribution dominates the carbon footprint. This is fairly atypical for an average pharmaceutical product, and reflects the current niche therapeutic area in which the API is used as well as the small production run of 20 tonnes per annum. The manufacturing route is dated and inefficient having been established over thirty years ago. The carbon impact of 354 gCO2 per tablet is very high compared to the average pharmaceutical product. Novartis analysis of cradle-to-grave LCA/supply chain carbon footprint reported an average of 10 kgCO2e for the annual patient dose of a typical pharmaceutical product.[1] To contextualise, this figure of 10 kgCO2e per annual patient dose would equate to driving 77 miles in an average car.[2]

Redesigning to a more efficient synthetic route to the API gives the carbon footprint shown in Figure 2. This reduces the effective carbon contribution of the API to the tablet from 89% to 77%, but also reduces the carbon footprint per tablet from 354 gCO2 to 166 gCO2, thus the benefits of changing the synthetic route are significant with respect to the carbon footprint as a whole. Looking at the contribution of the rest of the secondary manufacturing process, the API still dominates due to the low total annual production. Typically economies of scale work in both primary (synthesis of main product) and secondary (formulation and packaging) manufacturing, but are more pronounced with API manufacture.[3]

Figure 2: Anti-inflammatory API carbon footprint - new route of manufacture

Modelling the process to a production scale of 200 tonnes per annum gives a picture that is more representative of pharmaceuticals produced in higher volumes, with only 48% of the carbon intensity being due to the API synthesis; the contributions of the other inputs in secondary manufacturing are now clearer and can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Anti-inflammatory API carbon footprint modelled to 200 tonnes per annum of API

The second example is a selective β1–blocker, prescribed for hypertension and other cardiovascular conditions. In 2011, this medicine was the 19th most commonly prescribed generic medicine, so is a large volume product. The output of an LCA study focusing on secondary manufacturing is presented in Figure 4 and gives a more representative example of the carbon footprint of most bulk pharmaceutical products.

Figure 4: LCA analysis of a  βbeta–blocker production downstream from API

Note: The information for both of the case studies above has been compiled as part of the CHEM21 project from confidential partner data.

  1. Environmental Sustainability at Novartis (Last accessed: April, 2016).
  2. Regulation (EC) No 443/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 setting emission performance standards for new passenger cars as part of the Community's integrated approach to reduce CO 2 emissions from light-duty vehicles (Text, 2009.
  3. W. De Soete, L. Boone, F. Willemse, E. De Meyer, B. Heirman, H. Van Langenhove and J. Dewulf, Environmental resource footprinting of drug manufacturing: Effects of scale-up and tablet dosage, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 2014, 91, 82-88.