top of page

The complex problem behind sustainability in the life and health sciences sector

As our society becomes increasingly concerned about the climate crisis and sustainability, where does the life and health sciences sector stand?



Lab waste on a plastic bag sorted by consumable type. Plastic bags, single use pipettes, empty cell culture medium bottles, gloves, cell culture vessels, tubes
Plastic waste is produced by labs every day (Photo by Green Elephant Biotech).

Scientific researchers and the biopharmaceutical industry are pioneers of innovation working towards good health and wellbeing for all. At the same time, the life sciences sector produces 55% more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than the automotive manufacturing sector. While attitudes toward sustainability within the life and health sciences sector are evolving, they are still in their early days; increasing accessibility to sustainable technologies could facilitate the sectors to become more sustainable.



The healthcare sector as a country, is the 5th largest emitter on our planet. Laboratory buildings account for about 60% of the energy use and emissions at the University of Oxford.


4.4% of the global net emissions are produced by the healthcare sector, and if considered as a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter on the planet (1). A recent study found that the average energy use of laboratories is still almost three times that of an equivalent-sized office (2), and the University of Oxford estimated that its laboratory buildings are responsible for about 60% of the university’s total energy use and carbon emissions (3). The latest version of the Carbon Impact of Biotech & Pharma Report finds that the industry’s carbon impact is further increasing, and the analysis of 91 public companies reveals that only 10% of them have set sufficient short-term targets that are aligned with a 1.5 °C increase (4). Another part of the story is that laboratories used for biological, medical, and agricultural research alone produce approximately 5.5 million tons of laboratory plastic waste annually, accounting for approximately 2% of the plastic waste produced worldwide (5).

The climate crisis and human health are strongly interlinked: emissions can contribute to rising temperatures, extreme weather conditions, and rising sea and CO₂ levels which all elevate the risk of health challenges such as malnutrition, disease, and heat stress, highlighting the risk of health damage from GHG emissions (6,7). The combined effects of ambient air pollution and household air pollution are associated with 6.7 million premature deaths through stroke, lung cancer, heart, or lung diseases annually, stressing the significance of developing clean fuels and technologies (8).


Two circles with individual sections separated by color. Center filled by an earth symbol with sun and thermometer. Four main effects by climate change: Rising temperatures, extreme weather, CO2 levels increase, rising sea levels. Outer ring defining detailed effects such as extreme heat, water supply impacts, changes in vector ecology leading to symptoms and diseases like malnutrition, bacterial or viral infections and cardiovascular failure as well as mental health impacts.
Consequences on the environment and human health following the rising temperatures and climate change. Adapted from Impact of Climate Change on Human Health by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (6).

A future in which the life and health sciences sectors prioritize decarbonization is therefore a win-win for both the environment and for human health. With society becoming more concerned about sustainability and climate change, different bodies have started numerous initiatives to push industries to prioritize sustainable change. Deloitte has published a report that outlines a vision for the future of healthcare and life sciences in 2025, promoting a change in energy providers and packaging alternatives, the adoption of circularity (Reduce, Refine, Replace), and green transportation systems (9). However, achieving this vision of a sustainable sector is not as easy as flicking a switch.


Embracing sustainability first requires a change in attitude to prioritize this value and second to take the first step on sustainable ground, overcoming the fear of risking something. This intrinsic motivation ensures a change in action that has a long-term impact, rather than sticking a band-aid onto the problem. Let’s dive into the current attitudes and efforts towards sustainability in the life sciences and health sectors.



Attitudes towards sustainability in Life Sciences and Health Industry and Academia


While understanding attitudes towards sustainability is difficult to decipher, examining the sectors reveals nuances between industry and academia, which shapes the actions that each take towards sustainability.


Industry life and health sciences companies are more likely to be influenced by social values and the responsibility to act sustainably. Whether the industry internally recognizes the need to adopt sustainability as a value, companies have external pressure and expectations to reflect societal values and deliver sustainable products, which influences company values. EY comments on the benefits of integrating goals such as sustainability development goals within a business plan to create sustainable and social value (10). Deloitte also comments on how companies adopting sustainability goals as part of operational goals and metrics can affect company reputation, therefore attracting and retaining talent (11). This societal pressure of sustainability is much greater in industry companies rather than in scientific research and academia, who do not face similar expectations.


 

In a survey of 40 of our tenants, two-thirds identified sustainability as a primary concern for the coming years. However, they lack guidance on how to navigate the landscape and struggle to find the right people to get concrete advice. Switching to more sustainable products requires careful consideration and raises major concerns, while the companies are also feeling the pressure to implement change. -  Mairi Dillon, Kadans Science Partner

 

Scientific research in academia prioritizes rigorous, high-quality successful research and publications, no matter the cost, which shapes their attitudes towards sustainability. Academics prioritize and highly value bullet-proof results full of biological and technical repeats using the scientific method to make novel discoveries, which unfortunately comes at the cost of many resources. While industry/companies performing scientific research are still held to the same standards of high-quality research, academia may be less likely to feel the need to change practices. Society expects researchers to focus on making life-changing scientific discoveries, and therefore places less pressure on academia to act sustainably. Within academia, Molero et al. cite that a large barrier to sustainability in clinical laboratories is their limited knowledge and awareness of the issue (12). There is also a common misconception within scientific research that sustainability comes at the cost of quality or success within academia, which also negatively shapes internal perspectives on sustainability (13).


With these differences in attitudes between industry and academia in mind, let’s take a look at the current actions that are being taken toward sustainability.



Current efforts towards sustainability


Over the last decade, the industry has taken multiple steps toward being more environmentally sustainable. This is seen in the creation and commitment to a plethora of goals and targets to achieve broader societal sustainability goals. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change goals pushed the corporate sector to adopt sustainability. More than 700 corporate members including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Takeda have all committed to zero carbon dioxide emissions through the Science Based Targets. In July 2023, seven biotech suppliers agreed on minimum supplier goals addressing waste management, energy consumption, and low-carbon transportation systems (14). The Manufacture 2030 initiative aims to measure, manage, and reduce environmental impacts within companies to aid in becoming more sustainable. Numerous big pharmaceutical companies are taking steps towards sustainability – Johnson & Johnson has committed $800 million through 2030 to make its products more sustainable and began a new “Healthy Lives Mission” to use 100% recyclable, reusable, or compostable plastic packaging (15). AstraZeneca has implemented an internal Product Sustainability Index to understand the environmental impacts of their products to inform improvement plans and have completed life cycle analyses on their products (16). Current programs seem to be focused on measuring emissions to understand the extent and root of the problem, followed by goal setting. However, the goals and commitments lack concrete action items and a tight timeline for the implementation of sustainability targets to achieve the set goals.


 

From an investor’s perspective, sustainability is definitely on the agenda and a key consideration. It is a topic not well attended within the industry yet, lacking the standardization of reporting and a clear definition to move towards a sustainable life science industry. - Alex Hamilton, Synocona Investment Management

 

On the other hand, there are fewer collective efforts towards sustainability in academia, where there is more responsibility on individual lab groups or institutions to create goals and integrate sustainability. The main player for sustainability in the lab is MyGreenLab, which has a range of initiatives such as MyGreenLab Certification, ACT Label, and the Freezer Challenge. Another important initiative is the Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), supporting users in the assessment of carbon emissions and providing a guide on action points. In the little resources available to guide labs towards sustainability, the main actions refer to reducing water usage in dishwashers and autoclaves, and checking for leaks, changing -80 freezers to -70, closing fume hoods, conducting waste audits (13). While emissions coming from these sources make up a large part of the carbon footprint, the healthcare supply chain including the production, transport, use, and disposal of goods and services that the sector consumes (Scope 3 Emissions) make up 71% of the healthcare sector’s GHG (4), and little is being done to address these emissions. Furthermore, implementing green lab programs and initiatives can become side-tracked due to a lack of time, funds, or motivation, and follow-up after certification is limited (13).



Table summarizing attitudes and actions of Industry and Academia. Center round text-field asking: What about providing alternative sustainable technologies to enable the sector to become more sustainable?
Industry and Academia: Summary of attitudes and actions to a sustainable future. 

Despite industry and academia's ongoing efforts toward environmental sustainability, both are still in their early stages. Metrics and standards for goals in these sectors are not streamlined, and there's a pressing need for increased accountability and long-term goal follow-up. While changes to scope 1 and 2 emissions may be more straightforward, addressing scope 3 emissions requires collaborative transparency to foster innovation over competition. Industry-academia collaboration can drive a shift to greener practices for both, with a focus on increasing valuable translational medicine research in academia. This involves inspiring action through tools like knowledge hubs and databases while encouraging everyone to adopt the language of sustainability, prioritize it, and persuade skeptics. By taking the first step, a few can act as catalysts, setting the stage for a cascading effect that motivates others to join in.



A more sustainable solution to the sustainability problem?


As well as a change in attitude and commitment to sustainability goals, offering sustainable and innovative technology that streamlines processes, research, and development is key to enabling the sector to become more sustainable. Offering alternative, sustainable technology solutions that can help bridge the gap between intention and action, such as technologies where scientists can perform research more sustainably, will greatly empower the life and health sciences sector to act more sustainably. For example, innovative technologies such as 3D virtual models support companies in designing efficient buildings and transport systems, including sustainable materials instead of traditional building materials, and reducing associated waste (17). Advanced manufacturing processes enhance the sustainability of industrial manufacturing by increasing the efficiency of material consumption, energy consumption, and waste as in 3D printing, automated platforms, and the use of more sustainable materials. Especially within the segment of available cell culture systems, innovations are missing and products are stuck on the level of Windows 98 — still functional but outdated. The need for pioneers revolutionizing the process and product market innovatively and sustainably to enable the sustainable switch of the whole sector seems urgent.



Enabling the biopharmaceutical industry to become more sustainable


Green Elephant Biotech, driven by cutting-edge technology and a commitment to the environment, pioneers the use of plant-based polymers, specifically polylactic acid (PLA), for labware. Derived from sustainable sources like corn starch, PLA synthesis involves carbon fixation, significantly reducing the carbon footprint compared to traditional polystyrene cell culture systems derived from crude oil.


As the world's first company to produce plant-based labware, Green Elephant Biotech empowers the biopharmaceutical industry to embrace sustainability by providing tools made from renewable materials. The flagship product, CellScrew®, serves as a scalable and sustainable solution for adherent cell expansion in biopharmaceuticals, and cell and gene therapy and addresses production bottlenecks, enhancing capacity and increasing accessibility to life-changing therapies. The innovative design of the flask maximizes surface area, optimizes cell growth conditions, and challenges the dominance of fossil-based plastics in these critical industries.


The plant-based 96-well plate from Green Elephant Biotech enables researchers to lead the sustainability movement in the lab. Replacing the most commonly used lab companion seamlessly, the only discernible change will be a remarkable reduction in the user’s carbon footprint by 50% compared to polystyrene-based plates.


For the life and health sciences sector to become more sustainable, ambition and commitment to goals are not enough: innovative and sustainable products and processes must be introduced to enable the sector to achieve climate targets and move towards a sustainable future.



The revolution for the lab: The world's first plant-based 96-well plate reduces carbon emissions by 50% compared to a polystyrene plate. Green Elephant Biotech's flagship product, CellScrew® with an intricate structure enables the reduction of carbon emissions by up to 90%.



Special thanks for providing insights:

 

Kadans Science Partner is the European leader in knowledge-intensive facilities and laboratories. They are present on 26 science parks/campuses and active in 6 countries with over 400 tenants, the majority in Life Sciences and Health. https://www.kadans.com/

 

References

(1) Karliner, J., Slotterback, S., Boyd, R., Ashby, B., Steele, K., Health Care’s Climate Footprint (2019)

(2) Energy Star, U.S. Energy Use Intensity by Property Type (August 2023), available from https://portfoliomanager.energystar.gov/pdf/reference/

(3) University of Oxford, Environmental Sustainability Strategy (March 2021) available from https://sustainability.admin.ox.ac.uk/files/environmentalsustainabilitystrategy.pdf

(4) MyGreenLab, The Carbon Impact of Biotech & Pharma (Updated December 2023) available from https://www.mygreenlab.org/2022-carbon-impact-of-biotech--pharma-report.html

(5) Urbina, M., Watts, A. & Reardon, E. Labs should cut plastic waste too. Nature 528, 479 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/528479c

(6) U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Impact of Climate Change on Human Health available from https://www.cdc.gov/climateandhealth/effects/default.htm

(7) Tang, L., Furushima, Y., Honda, Y. et al. Estimating human health damage factors related to CO2 emissions by considering updated climate-related relative risks. Int J Life Cycle Assess 24, 1118–1128 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-018-1561-6

(8) World Health Organization, Household air pollution key facts available from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/household-air-pollution-and-health

(9) Deloitte Centre of Health Solutions, The future unmasked Predicting the future of healthcare and life sciences in 2025 available from https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/life-sciences-health-care/deloitte-uk-life-sciences-healthcare-predictions.pdf

(10) Ernst & Young, Defining, measuring and effectively communicating sustainability practices and progress in the life sciences industry (2020) available from https://assets.ey.com/content/dam/ey-sites/ey-com/en_gl/topics/life-sciences/ey-sustainability-practices-in-the-life-sciences-industry.pdf

(11) Deloitte, Life sciences and health care companies navigate ESG, available from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/audit/articles/esg-survey/life-sciences-healthcare-companies-sustainability-reporting.html

(12) Molero, A., Calabrò, M., Vignes, M., Gouget, B., Gruson, D. Sustainability in Healthcare: Perspectives and Reflections Regarding Laboratory Medicine. Ann Lab Med (2021);41:139-144 https://doi.org/10.3343/alm.2021.41.2.139

(13) Jain, N. Integrating sustainability into scientific research. Nat Rev Methods Primers 2, 35 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43586-022-00126-6

(14) Sustainable Markets Initiative, Open letter on supplier targets from members of the Sustainable Markets Initiative Health System Task Force, available from https://a.storyblok.com/f/109506/x/5388424c6e/joint-ceo-letter_final_200723.pdf

(15) Hallie Levine, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health commits $800 million through 2030 to make its products more sustainable for a healthier planet, published September 08 2020 available from https://www.jnj.com/latest-news/johnson-johnson-commits-800-million-to-making-more-sustainable-products

(16) AstraZeneca, Sustainability Report 2022, available from https://www.astrazeneca.com/content/dam/az/Sustainability/2023/pdf/Sustainability_Report_2022.pdf.

(17) Ian Bolland, Sustainability and life sciences: How to make it happen, published June 05 2020 available from https://www.med-technews.com/medtech-insights/sustainability-and-life-sciences-how-to-make-it-happen/


United Nations Framework Convention available from https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/what-is-the-united-nations-framework-convention-on-climate-change

Science Based Targets Initiative available from https://sciencebasedtargets.org/how-it-works

Manufacture 2030 initiative, available from https://manufacture2030.com/





Comments


bottom of page