Are single-use systems for pharma production a sustainable choice?

Packaging. Straws. Plastic bags. Single-use items have become a huge topic of social and political debate over the past couple of years. This is largely due to an increased focus on ocean pollution and plastic infiltrating all levels of our eco-system. As a result, many industries are buckling down on their efforts to reduce and eliminate single-use plastics from production and distribution. But what about single-use systems in pharma manufacturing?

Single-use systems are praised as being an efficient, safe and cost-effective option for manufacturers who want to remain agile in this ever fluctuating landscape. But with sustainability high on the agenda, pharma manufacturers are now questioning the environmental impact of single use plastic. How can something that is used once and then thrown away be good for the environment? And therefore are single-use systems, compared to traditional stainless steel, really sustainable?

The quick answer to this question is, in general, yes they are. In fact, a third party reviewed lifecycle assessment (LCA) study by GE demonstrates that, though it may seem counter-intuitive, switching to single-use products can significantly reduce your carbon footprint, energy and water use.

Stainless steel equipment vs. single-use systems: Working out the environmental impact

To understand the environmental impact of equipment, it is important to look at all factors in its lifecycle. This includes the way it is produced, used, cleaned and disposed of.

When people think about single-use systems, their main concern is the end of their lifecycle – disposal. Yet according to the LCA study, this is a very small contributor to overall environmental impact. In fact, the greatest impact comes from production, followed by use.

Therefore, when taking all factors into account, single-use systems have less of an impact than traditional stainless steel equipment.

Why is this? As mentioned in previous TechTalk articles on sustainability in pharma manufacturing, cleaning and sterilization are the largest contributors to energy use in facilities. And stainless steel equipment, despite being reusable, needs large amounts of heat and water to ensure it is sterile for the next batch. In addition, chemicals used to clean equipment are eventually released into the environment, which can have a negative impact on ecosystems.

Overall, the environmental impact from producing, using and disposing of single-use equipment is significantly lower than traditional stainless steel. This was found to be the case across all impact categories, including climate change, human health, ecosystem quality, resource consumption and water consumption.

Exceptions to the rule

Although it has been established that single-use systems usually have a lower environmental impact than stainless steel or a hybrid approach, there are exceptions.

This is because the source of energy used by pharma manufacturers varies significantly depending on location. For example, there is a higher impact for stainless steel if the local grid is supplied by fossil fuel energy rather than renewable energy. The distance between the single-use system production site and the facility also affects these figures.

According to the LCA study, single use has a marginally higher impact than stainless steel in Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. In these cases, a hybrid approach may be preferable. But in all instances and locations, the amount of water used is still significantly higher for stainless steel, which has an impact on the environment and the overall cost of use.

To conclude, although single-use items have a bad reputation in consumer goods, single-use systems in pharma manufacturing are generally more sustainable than traditional methods.