5 key steps to find the best pharma cold chain solution to reduce carbon emissions

Niklas Lönnkvist Head of Sales EMEA
niklas.lonnkvist@envirotainer.com

Pharmaceutical companies are constantly under pressure to reduce their carbon emissions. The largest share by far of all emissions occurs in production and purchase of raw materials, whereas logistics only makes up a fraction. The most environmentally friendly solution for pharmaceutical companies, when it comes to transportation, is therefore to ensure that pharmaceuticals reach their destination on time and in perfect condition. To dispose of and replace degraded products increase the carbon emissions dramatically, as well as put patients’ health and safety at risk. Quality managers focusing on operational excellence are paying more attention to the amount of discarded products in temperature-controlled transport. Below are 5 key steps to start with.

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Achieving operational excellence in cold chain logistics

Highly sensitive pharmaceuticals, or pharmaceuticals with a short shelf life, are usually transported by air to ensure an unbroken cold chain. An appropriate and qualitative solution will ensure that products reach patients in optimal condition, no matter the obstacles encountered along the way. A secure and safe logistics solution will also be the best solution from an environmental perspective, as well as protect patients by preventing damage of potentially life-saving products. This will also be the best solution in terms of operational excellence.

Minimizing carbon emissions

For temperature-controlled transport there are two options to choose between – active and passive containers/packaging. In short, active, or temperature-controlled, containers can adjust the temperature inside the container to compensate for ambient temperatures via cooling and/or heating systems, whereas passive packaging has no such control. Active temperature-controlled containers are recyclable and can be reused for many years. In general, a temperature-controlled container can guarantee a very precise temperature with minimal deviations and is therefore the preferred choice for sensitive products and pharmaceuticals. Passive packaging could be the preferred choice for products that are less sensitive to temperature fluctuations.

To dispose of and replace degraded products increase the carbon emissions dramatically, as well as put patients’ health and safety at risk.

The most significant direct cost of air transport is fuel. By reducing packaging weight, emissions will consequently be reduced. However, there are also indirect costs that can have a huge impact on the environment, the worst being that of degraded products.

To minimize the total carbon emissions of pharmaceutical cold chain, a number of aspects must be taken into account. Here are five key steps for operational excellence:

1. Product stability

Product stability relates to the quality of the active substance/substances over time when exposed to different environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and light. The more stable the product, the less complex logistics solution is needed and here a passive solution could be an alternative choice. However, product stability might sometimes be overestimated, or the risks involved underestimated. The starting point for operational excellence in transport is to really understand the product requirements.

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2. Maximize product space in shipping solution

Passive cold chain solutions often use lightweight materials to minimize fuel consumption. However, thermal packaging materials can take up a lot of space. A temperature-controlled container entails less secondary packaging and can allow for up to 60% more volume for the actual products being shipped. More volume per container will lead to fewer shipments and thereby to a smaller carbon footprint. Carbon emissions thus depends both on packaging weight and product volume. The optimal solution varies from case to case and a good advice is therefore to communicate with providers of pharmaceutical cold chain containers/packaging in order to calculate which alternative is most suitable.

3. Minimize packaging waste

Waste management is another factor that must be taken into account when calculating the total carbon emissions. Active cold chain logistics solutions use recyclable temperature-controlled containers. When it comes to passive packaging, some of it can be reused, such as coolant materials, but most of the packaging is disposed of and, especially in emerging markets, often burnt after shipment. Waste material in transport is an often overlooked aspect of the environmental impact of pharma logistics but should be taken into account when aiming for operational excellence.

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4. Handling of goods across the logistics chain

A major challenge in the logistics chain is that the products go through many hands before arriving at their destination – forwarders, ground handlers, intermediate cold storage providers, airports and airlines. This implies a higher risk of wrong handling of goods. Also here it is advisable to open up a dialog with providers of temperature-controlled transport to ensure that they provide the appropriate training for all parties involved in correct handling of containers and packaging. Operational excellence necessitates close partnerships with all intermediaries of the logistics chain.

5. Risk management essential for operational excellence

An explanation for the occurrence of temperature excursions, is the incorrect assessment of the risks involved when transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals. Risks might have been higher than expected or perhaps the direct costs of transport has been the decisive factor when procuring a logistics solution, not taking into account the indirect costs of damaged products. As emissions increase exponentially with degraded products – as do also the costs involved in manufacturing and shipping replacement products and/or loss of sales – risk management is essential when finding the best logistics solution and to achieve operational excellence.

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