Future of Sustainable Pharmaceuticals

Principles of Sustainable Drug Discovery
Giants Leading the Way

Sustainability in pharmaceutical development and marketing is crucial for human welfare since the use and role played by medicines will only increase as the human lifespan increases, and greater numbers of people live out their lifespans. Unless these medicines are produced ethically and greenly, the planet will come under greater environmental stress. Ironically, this will compromise long-term health through multiple mechanisms, such as antimicrobial resistance and fertility disorders.

Sustainability is defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The greatest challenge of sustainability in pharmaceutical development is the complexity of the problem without a defined set of simple solutions. Moreover, these solutions are neither true nor false but may be classified as worse or better.

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Principles of Sustainable Drug Discovery

Researchers have put forward several essential principles in sustainable drug discovery. These include:

  1. Designing drug development processes to be benign from the start in terms of environmental impact as well as their safety and efficacy. The impact must include the burden of drug discovery, development, commercial distribution, and clinical use since these will otherwise be passed on to future generations. This also includes using natural sources of new drugs in a sustainable way, including the use of tissue culture technologies rather than the original plants.

Benign-by-design also includes using the waste from one process as the raw material for the next. Pharmaceutical companies can minimize the use of resources by avoiding waste and redundancy. Moreover, modular design can help segregate those parts of the device that need to be incinerated from recyclable parts.

Packaging material can also be switched from non-biodegradable plastics to plastic from sugarcane or corn, for example, which completely degrades in about a decade. Biodegradable polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polycaprolactone (PCL), polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT), and polylactic acid are all being explored for such use, to form at least the majority of the packaging, even if not all.

"For example, natural fibre based pulps, such as cellulose, cotton or bamboo, providing the rigid structure of a package, coupled to a film of polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that can provide the moisture-proofing, gas permeability or other properties to the composite while still being up to 99% recyclable,"

Mayur Patel and Eoin Sheridan

Paper inserts and manuals can be replaced by smart labels and augmented reality (AR) instructions on how to use drugs or medications by a simple QR code. The cold chain can be enhanced by using smart technology to operate just-in-time supply chain technology.

  1. Focusing on unmet or neglected clinical needs by repurposed and new drugs is the need of the hour, rather than only on the profitability of the pharmaceuticals.
  2. Using green chemical processes to synthesize and analyze lead compounds to minimize the waste produced and the carbon emissions and conserve the non-renewable resources used up in these processes. Biotechnology is coming to the aid of scientists here, as well as computer-aided design, to help identify and isolate specific synthetic pathways.
    Read Here: The Carbon Footprint of Clinical Trials
  3. The exploitation of artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data will help improve the speed and efficiency of drug discovery by allowing for the prediction of many parameters that currently have to be tested in vivo. Automating and multiplexing synthetic approaches allow for better reproducibility at lower consumption and overall lower costs, with a broader range of exploration.
  4. In addition, the use of biomarkers and bioinformatics to guide patient-specific medicine can help reduce the unnecessary use of medication and thus relieve both individuals and the environment of a huge burden. This should include both genetic and metabolomic markers that evaluate the disease risk and the optimal therapy.
  5. The search for drugs that treat the root cause of an illness and not just the symptoms is another major focus of current research that may eventually make pharmacy more sustainable. Not only will this reduce dosing and adverse effects, but it could prevent the emergence of drug resistance.
  6. Computational modeling can also help reduce the risk inherent in drug discovery processes by identifying mechanisms of action and allowing sustainability to be assessed beforehand.
  7. Cost-effectiveness can also be assessed using such data, allowing for a more equitable and transparent drug discovery process with more acceptable pricing and related considerations.
  8. Proper regulation of drug discovery processes can also help avoid investing in less valuable areas and using less effective experimental designs to design an efficient and sustainable process with proper consideration of the life cycle.
  9. Finally, it is essential to promote responsible research that benefits the industry and society at large. The government plays its role in facilitating and incentivizing research into areas while ensuring that the people benefit from such investment. 


Giants Leading the Way

Novo Nordisk is an outstanding instance of how sustainable pharmaceuticals can be produced. Using a Circular for Zero strategy, this Swedish giant has designed a framework whereby its diabetes products, such as injection pens and medications, are designed to last the entire expected lifetime of the product, are made using sustainable materials, without production waste, and with post-use recycling and repurposing in mind.

"To give the pens a second life and prevent them from ending up in a landfill, Novo developed a system that sorts the insulin pens' many parts. From there, they were able to partner with a Danish design firm to make office chairs with the discarded plastic and lamps from the discarded glass insulin vials."

All its device development projects operate on this basis, using the indicators of CO2 impact per patient per year, the proportion of sustainable plastic used, and the product's recyclability at the end of its life as the measure of how good the development process is in terms of circularity.

AstraZeneca, a UK-Swedish pharmaceutical, is among the few giants in this area to invest heavily in cutting emissions while centering its sustainability program around equitable healthcare access, environmental protection, and transparent, ethical operations. It has received a double-A rating for four successive years for its environmental responsibility by the global organization CDP. Its Ambition Zero Carbon aims to move forward the date of zero carbon emissions by ten years, with an investment of one billion dollars to help meet these targets.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has pledged itself to help produce affordable products over a larger market range while reducing emissions and water use in its operations. It has pledged carbon neutrality by 2030, as has Novartis. Biogen has already allotted $250 million to move entirely into renewable energy by 2050.

Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical, has reached a milestone in its aim to recycle, reuse or recover the waste produced during drug development, with the current level being 73%, not far down from its 2025 goal of 90%. The Japanese company Takeda has cut carbon emissions by more than a third relative to the 2005 levels. It aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040, cutting out greenhouse gas emissions completely by that point in its plants and helping suppliers cut their emissions.

Bayer has turned to green packaging as its core focus for the time being. This company has promised to achieve zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050. It is attempting to reduce its carbon emissions by switching to green packaging for all over-the-counter drugs from its consumer health division by the end of the current decade.

This means investing 100 million euros – 2% of the sales from this division. More ambitiously, it aims to use at least 50% recycled content and only sustainably produced paper, for its brand packaging, by 2050.

Image Credit: Francesco Scatena/Shutterstock.com


Pharmaceuticals need to be vigilant about their environmental impact, the effectiveness of healthcare mediated by medicine use, and the sustainability of pharmaceutical practices, from development, manufacture, marketing, use, and disposal/excretion of drugs. Integrating the available array of synthetic, computational, bioinformatics, metabolomics, and pharmacogenetics research and technologies, it should be possible to understand the forces shaping the future of pharmaceuticals in the current circumstances and to make the required changes to ensure a sustainable system that reduces the environmental footprint of pharmaceuticals.


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  • Missakian, N. (2021). Bayer Targets 100% Green Packaging for Consumer Health Brands By 2030 As Part Of €100 Million Sustainability Plan. Available at: https://www.fiercepharma.com/marketing/bayer-aims-for-100-green-packaging-for-consumer-health-brands-by-2030-as-part-eu-100
  • Rees, V. (2020). Biodegradable Plastic Packaging Developed for Use in Pharma. European Pharmaceutical Review. Available at: https://www.europeanpharmaceuticalreview.com/news/110198/biodegradable-plastic-packaging-developed-for-use-in-pharma/
  • Singh, A., et al. (2011). Eco Friendly Pharmaceutical Packaging Material. World Applied Sciences Journal. Available at: https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  • Patel, M. et al. (2021). Sustainability in Drug Delivery: A Green Future Without Compromising Safety and Efficacy. Available at: https://www.paconsulting.com/newsroom/expert-opinion/chemistry-today-sustainability-in-drug-delivery-a-green-future-without-compromising-safety-and-efficacy-7-april-2021/

Further Reading

  • All Medicine Content
  • Herbal versus Synthetic Medicines
  • The Relationship Between Climate Change and Global Social Medicine
  • The Replication Crisis in Biomedicine
  • What is Global Social Medicine?


Last Updated: May 31, 2022

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