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Saving Lives Sustainably: Driving Environmental Stewardship While Innovating to Meet Unmet Patient Needs

As the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry continues to innovate life-saving medicines and vaccines for better patient outcomes, it is essential that sustainable efforts remain at the forefront of these efforts.

by Thomas Willemsen

Driven by the application of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and big data, the pharmaceutical industry has been advancing and over the past few years, we have seen an acceleration in the discovery of new molecular entities with heightened precision. The development of COVID-19 vaccines and the subsequent rollouts in a matter of months proved how Industry 4.0 technologies can accelerate patient access to life-saving innovations.

As the industry continues discovering new medicines and vaccines while working towards meeting unmet patient needs, it is crucial to ensure that processes are done with sustainability in mind.

Unfortunately, pharmaceutical manufacturers have been long linked to environmental contamination. A study1 showed that the carbon emissions from the pharmaceutical industry are around 55 per cent more than the automotive industry – a sobering statistic for the industry.

It is ironic that the compounds being manufactured are aimed at improving health yet, unsustainable practices that lead to waste generation and pollution can adversely affect human life.


The Environment and Human Health

Unsustainable pharmaceutical manufacturing feeds into macro trends that lead to environmental issues. On a larger scale of things, in Asia, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation are supported by the increasing use of natural resources, and more carbon emissions and waste is generated.

Carbon emissions warm the earth’s temperature and lead to rising sea levels and erratic weather conditions. The devastating floods in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand in end-2021 were a symptom of this change. The floods had overwhelmed irrigation systems in several parts of the Asia-Pacific (APAC), which led to stagnant water, resulting in heightened risks of communicable diseases including cholera and Hepatitis A, and creating conducive breeding sites for disease vectors such as the Aedes mosquito – the cause of chikungunya, dengue, and Zika transmissions.

The region also faces solid waste problems with its management being a challenge2 in many countries in APAC. This is concerning considering solid waste is a hotbed for the spread of infectious diseases. The use of single-use plastics is prevalent – Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand collectively lose out on US$6 billion a year3 because they discard, instead of recycling, single-use plastics. COVID-19 has added to that burden; the amount of plastic waste in Asia has increased with 1.8 billion single-use facemasks4 being discarded daily – higher than any other region.


Biodiversity and Medicine

Human health is dependent on biodiversity. Modern medicine has saved countless lives over decades because nature has allowed us to do so. Nature provides fundamental resources for drug discovery and an invaluable source of inspiration for biomimicry toward healthcare innovation.

The discovery of penicillin,5 catalysing the introduction of antibiotics in the treatment of bacterial infections, is owed to biodiversity, and so was the innovation of Paclitaxel, a chemotherapy medicine used to treat different cancers. Colchicine, a medicine to prevent and treat gout flares, was discovered from the Colchicum autumnale plant, and the horseshoe crab’s blood has been used in medical research to ensure drug safety, including that of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The APAC region is rich in biodiversity. Recently, a new research institute6 that focuses on advancing health sciences by leveraging biodiversity was launched in Singapore – this underscores the importance of nature in achieving better health.

So, what can pharmaceutical companies do to play a part in safeguarding the environment?


Environmental Sustainability Framework

Most pharmaceutical companies have a patient-centric approach. While this widely refers to enabling patient access to essential medications, patient-centricity should begin with protecting our environment and its biodiversity, given the interconnectedness between the planet and human health.

In order to effect meaningful change toward environmental sustainability, pharmaceutical companies can develop a framework to guide their efforts. The framework should define the best practices to minimise total environmental impacts and the use of raw materials, reduce waste and pollution, maximise resources through the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle), champion the use of eco-friendly materials, and quantitatively measure environmental impacts.

With 80 per cent of environmental impacts being determined in the design phase, defining key priorities and standards to defend the ecosystem from the start will be crucial to uphold an organisation’s responsibilities to protect our planet throughout the value chain.

Drawing up action plans that prioritise the environment while innovating to improve human health inspires organisations to think, act, and drive sustainable efforts. Takeda practises sustainability by design; we incorporate “Life Cycle Thinking” and “Circularity” as inspiration. Sustainability principles are integrated into our product research and development to reduce our environmental life cycle footprint.


Purpose-led Environmental Stewardship

Every pharmaceutical company has one main and shared purpose – people. We set out to improve overall wellbeing, change lives, and increase lifespans. While many organisations set out with business sustainability in mind, we must remember that a threat to the environment is a threat to human health. It is, therefore, paramount to conserve the ecosystem and reduce carbon emissions to enhance the pharmaceutical industry’s long-term value in the healthcare space.

Environmental stewardship is at the heart of our operations at Takeda. As we drive the discovery and delivery of life-transforming treatments, we are guided throughout our value chain by our dedication to patients, our people, and the planet.

Globally, we are committed to zero waste-to-landfill for major locations by 2030 and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. In Asia, specifically Singapore and Japan, we have already achieved zero waste-to-landfill status in our facilities. Last September, we broke ground7 on our first Zero Energy building to follow the Singapore Green Mark Zero Energy scheme within Takeda’s global manufacturing and supply network. In Vietnam, we planted over 500 young mangrove trees in Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, in partnership with Gaia Nature Conservation to revegetate the location’s natural habitat. Meanwhile, in Sydney, Australia, we used kayaks to clean up the Harbour and managed to collect 41.5kg of rubbish.

These efforts represent our steadfast commitment to environmental sustainability at Takeda that we have been actively engaged in for almost 50 years.

As Mother Nature provides, we too, must drive environmental stewardship and prioritise resource conservation to protect her at all costs. Every small gesture makes a difference, and our collective action is crucial to achieving a greener earth. Let’s continue to work towards saving lives sustainably. [APBN]

About the Author

Thomas Willemsen joined Takeda as Area Senior Vice President, Asia Pacific in May 2019, also serving as a member of the Growth & Emerging Markets Leadership Team, based in Singapore. He brings over 25 years of experience in the biotech industry, leading organisations in Merck and GSK. Prior to joining Takeda, Thomas was the General Manager of GSK China.