Injecting sustainability into the pharmaceutical cold chain

Published: 12-Jan-2022

Kevin Doran, Global Head of Supply Chain at Tower Cold Chain, highlights how a resource and energy intensive area such as cold chain can become more sustainable through leveraged engineering and by shortening the supply chain between the manufacturer and the distributor

The temperature-controlled packaging industry is under increasing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of cold chain shipping. The healthcare industry, with its substantial carbon footprint, has been the principal influencer in this cultural catalyst as its organisations look to collaborate with associated partners and establish environmentally sustainable operations.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, this call for improved sustainability credentials from both consumers and corporations is being answered. Packaging industry pioneers are investing heavily in research and development to bring sustainable services and products to market. It comes as no surprise that temperature-controlled solutions, which offer unambiguous reusability and recyclability capabilities, are rapidly gaining traction within the cold chain market and displacing traditional solutions with less robust environmental credentials.

Building sustainability into the customer supply chain

The increased pressure for greener supply chain management within the pharmaceutical industry has forced many to reassess certain processes. In line with consumer and government efforts to address single-use plastics, pharmaceutical organisations have been compelled to look for sustainable packaging alternatives to ship products.

Consequently, reusable storage containers are growing in notoriety amongst environmentally ambitious organisations as a sustainable method for medical logistics. Multi-use solutions offer a compelling proposition, simply by the fact that they will stay in market circulation for a long time. Robust in structure, reusable cold storage solutions can withstand years of freighting compared with single-use solutions that are discarded after one journey.

Injecting sustainability into the pharmaceutical cold chain

At present, disposable containers may offer the market an initially lower cost alternative; however, designs employing the significant application of single-use plastics are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their place in a sustainable world. Even when single-use solutions suggest a more responsible approach, such as designs using compostable materials, there is an ambiguity to the carbon investment required and whether their end-of-life plan is strictly adhered to. Ensuring the lifecycle benefits of single-use solutions can be difficult to obtain, especially when these specialist facilities are often not readily available at the point of discard.

When it comes to designs based on single-use plastics, it is difficult to imagine any credible responsible waste route that can be consistently applied across our planet. The continuing evolution of corporate governance expectations of the environmental impact of their products is driving organisations to challenge all aspects of their business.

One example of this is the drive to seek out external partners with “sustainability first” mindsets. Manufacturers will likely source freight from those who have the most optimised supply chain networks. Logistics organisations who can offer customers a web of hubs located across multiple countries and can minimise wasted movements of products and offer localised sourcing will be in a strong position to become a partner of choice.

The return logistics of empty containers is another area that is under scrutiny from all parties in the distribution process. This is a critical piece of the “reusable” credential and is a challenging logistical exercise requiring energy and cost-efficient solutions to reposition stock ready for its next deployment. To achieve this, the most energy efficient movement is typically by sea as opposed to air when a pharmaceutical product is involved.

This variation in cycle-time has a significant bearing on how many containers are required for each shipping lane. Add to this the current challenges of global distribution and the need to hold an appropriate amount of stock in the right locations to meet customer demand, and the logistical implications quickly become evident.

Reverse logistics processes in the cold storage sector can be costly and cumbersome. But, despite the difficulties of mitigating returns management, cold storage companies that streamline the way products move back through their supply chains by capitalising on strong hub networks are bound to see sustainability benefits, which will bring with them cost savings and customer satisfaction.

Injecting sustainability into the pharmaceutical cold chain

Providers of cold chain containers are increasingly looking to advanced operational planning solutions that encompass distribution, return logistics and asset management. ERP solutions have been present for some time and helped massively to manage the complexity of large asset bases and their deployment.

Moving forward, AI software and smart systems are breaking through and will be transformative in the way they help logistics companies to optimise their activities — helping to identify synergies between routes to minimise the movement of empty containers and honing the deployment of assets to provide enhanced agility, flexibility and accuracy.

Optimising volumetric efficiency is another critical strategy in sustainable packaging. Better and more efficient shipping will be achieved by improving the use of space and reducing excess air in each container. Innovators will be those who take a holistic view of the supply chain, ensuring that packaging is co-ordinated and uniform at each step along the way from manufacturing facilities to distribution centres and retailers.

Engineering a sustainable cold chain

Apart from the advantages of making supply chains greener, cold storage container manufacturers are also realising the internal benefits of implementing more economically sound manufacturing practices. Adopting modular construction processes is an effective approach to the efficient use of resources in manufacturing.

Modular containers that can be disassembled, relocated and refurbished for reuse significantly reduce the demand for raw materials, minimising the amount of energy expended to create a new container.

Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing is another production model that brings sustainability into the cold chain by building containers to meet consumer demand, rather than being speculatively created in advance of need. The cold chain container infrastructure is heavily influenced by the requirement to have available stock against a backdrop of unpredictable demand.

This leads to significant stocking at multiple locations. The ability to effectively respond to this demand — as well as market growth — by producing only the asset base needed is a significant challenge. Modular container designs provide the agility to accurately produce the asset base required, minimising raw material use as well as the warehousing needed to maintain unused stock and the general transportation involved.

Transportation waste stems from unnecessary movement that doesn’t add value to the product.

Cold storage container providers that aim for greener practices will identify significant opportunities to reduce excess miles throughout the manufacturing supply chain.

As previously mentioned, a credible end-of-life strategy for a company’s products is rapidly becoming a fundamental expectation of customers and regulators. All aspects of the design process must be influenced by this; standard materials that can be recycled into a wide range of future products is a good example. Likewise, ensuring dissimilar materials can be easily and safely separated, and subsequently processed in a broad array of regions and geographies, is becoming increasingly important.

Futureproofing a sustainable cold chain

The pressure is on for logistics players and industry partners, including manufacturers, governments and NGOs, to improve how they support the life sciences sector. The generation of multi-use shipping systems that are quickly replacing single-use systems has made huge strides in sustainability, affordability and hassle-free management. But it may only be the beginning.

As technological advancements generate new materials and products, the dawn of sustainable packaging solutions that push sustainability limits even further could be on the horizon. It is not inconceivable that we might soon see shipping systems with new components that enable even greater levels of reuse, whereby total carbon footprints of products are fundamental to product design and operations.

Systems that maximise thermal efficiency without any excess phase change material (PCM) usage, added weight and extra energy required for transportation may be upon us sooner than we realise, with visionaries not shying away from embracing complex technological solutions if they lead to simple and efficient operations.

Ultimately, the innovative leaders in cold chain packaging will be those who futureproof their business as we drive towards greener practices, wherein the disposable economy is increasingly no longer accepted nor tolerated. For the likes of Tower Cold Chain, sustainability is embedded in its ethos.

With its entire product portfolio offering complete reusability, Tower products are manufactured to stay manufactured. Most recently, Tower partnered with leading sustainability rating provider, Ecovadis, who awarding Tower the Bronze Medal for its long-term commitment to reducing its carbon footprint and decreasing the risk of supply chain waste and disruption.

Clearly, establishing sustainable operations within the pharmaceutical cold chain industry is achievable. Maximising the longevity of cold storage through robustness, reliability and — most importantly — reusability, is key to successful, sustainable cold chain operations.

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