How R&D is helping drive a greener future
At AstraZeneca, everything we do is driven by science to make a real and sustainable difference to the patients treated with our medicines, healthcare and wider society. We believe our patients should receive treatments created with the minimal environmental impact.
Climate change and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are two of the 21st century’s greatest challenges, each posing significant threats to health, biodiversity and sustainable development. Climate change is set to have increasingly damaging effects on communities, ecosystems and economies and it is predicted it will cause several hundred thousand deaths annually by 2030.1
Currently, 23% of all deaths globally could be prevented through healthier environments and nearly two-thirds of the 12.6 million deaths caused by the environment each year are from NCDs1 such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes – our main therapy areas.
We are working tirelessly from early science and beyond to defeat these chronic diseases. Everything we do in R&D has a critical role to play in managing and reducing our environmental impact across all our activities, products and programmes.
Protecting the environment is a key part of our sustainability strategy and across R&D we are constantly challenging ourselves to pioneer innovative approaches and processes which make the most efficient use of natural resources.
We believe there is a strong and inseparable connection between the health of our business, our patients, our workforce, and the planet – and the way in which these impact one another.
Environmental considerations run through every aspect of R&D – identifying and addressing the environmental impact of our products from discovery through to their launch, commercial lifetime and on to their end-of-use and disposal.
Environmental protection in R&D is focused on four key areas: our pipeline, sites, how we operate our labs and how we will discover, develop and produce medicines in the future. We are collaborating with My Green Lab to reduce the environmental impact of our research labs, which has already resulted in reduced energy and water use.
Across our pipeline, green chemistry is helping us design potential new medicines with the smallest possible environmental impact without sacrificing efficacy or safety. This same focus extends to product development as seen in our commitment to launch a next-generation respiratory inhaler to treat asthma and COPD with near zero climate impact propellants by 2025.
We are also focused on how we operate and run our sites to reduce our carbon emissions, waste, water and single use plastics. This is all while keeping one eye on the future as we consider how we will embed carbon-neutrality, circularity and resource efficiency into our buildings and operations for decades to come.
From washing glassware to ensuring all our equipment is energy efficient, everything we do in our R&D labs contributes to our environmental footprint. We are creating a culture of sustainability across our labs and changing mindsets to ensure we design and develop new medicines in the most environmentally sustainable way possible.
We are working in collaboration with the non-profit organisation My Green Lab on the first environmental sustainability project that reaches across all our core R&D sites, which is the first programme of its scope in the industry.
Labs at all of our core R&D sites have now been certified to at least Gold level, with South San Francisco receiving the highest level of certification provided by My Green Lab – Green. This has been achieved by our scientists implementing sustainable improvements in energy, water and chemical use and the amount of waste produced through initiatives including recycling lab plastics and taking part in the International Laboratory Freezer Challenge 2020.
This challenge is run by My Green Lab and the International Institute for Sustainable Labs and we recently won its Top Organisation Award in the biotech and biopharma category. Labs competed to save energy through activities such as freezer clean outs, maintenance, temperature set-backs from -80 to -70 °C, and upgrades to more energy-efficient models. Actions taken by our participating labs are estimated to be saving a combined 1.1 million kWh/year – approximately a third of the Freezer Challenge’s combined 3.2 million kWh/year savings – and the energy savings equivalent of reducing carbon emissions by about 775 metric tons.
At its heart, My Green Lab is about behaviour change. It’s about asking everyone in our labs to have a sustainability mindset in everything they do. Our accreditations are testament to how quickly this programme can result in positive change in how we manage energy, water, waste and chemicals across our laboratories.
Every change we make matters and we are now working towards achieving Green level certification across all our sites by 2024. Having seen first-hand the benefit of My Green Lab in helping us realise our environmental sustainability goals, we are now a sponsor of the organisation and will be working with them to support the future of sustainable science across AstraZeneca, our partners, collaborators and beyond.
With nearly a thousand scientists already engaged in the programme, AstraZeneca is setting a leading example for what a Green Labs programme can look like at a large biopharmaceutical company.
Green chemistry is fundamental to our environmental protection efforts. Based on 12 principles, it is a framework which empowers our chemists to find creative and innovative new ways to reduce waste, conserve energy and eliminate the use of hazardous substances.
Green chemistry is a vital piece in the scientific puzzle, and we are contributing to a greener future by increasingly making sustainability the first thing we think about when we start to discover molecules and design processes.
Our chemists make green chemistry decisions on a daily basis as they look to improve processes and reduce waste streams and carbon footprint. Examples of this include creating a novel chemical reaction which enables the efficient and scalable use of CO2 as a building block to chemically transform aromatic compounds such as arenes and styrenes, commonly used in medicinal organic chemistry.
We have also created a new, single-step cobalt-catalysed reaction to easily introduce methyl groups into complex late-stage drug molecules in a predictable manner, offering improved efficiency and sustainability for obtaining methyl substitution.
Collaboration, both internally and externally, is essential. One initiative R&D is involved with in partnership with our Global Sustainability team – the MISTRA SafeChem – aims to create a more environmentally sustainable and green chemical industry in Sweden. As well as enabling good collaboration with the chemistry industry in Sweden and regulatory agencies in Sweden and Europe, it has facilitated internal collaboration between groups involved in green chemistry, sustainability and toxicology.
AstraZeneca is also leading a six-year project with the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), to develop tools and models to identify potential environmental hazards and risks associated with active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) earlier in the drug development process.
Green chemistry is central to how we can improve the processes, design and materials we create and use in our labs across the whole lifecycle of a product – from molecule discovery until that medicine is excreted from the body or disposed of into the environment.
Developing our products of the future in an environmentally sustainable way means we have to adopt a forward-thinking, circular mentality where we consider what the environmental repercussions of a product will be not just years, but decades, later.
Our Product Environmental Stewardship initiative ensures we understand and proactively manage the environmental impact of our products, assessing their environmental sustainability through every stage of their lifecycle.
We examine the ingredients we use, how we produce our medicines and devices, how they are packaged, distributed and then used by patients and finally how they are disposed of. We have to strike a balance between designing products with the smallest possible environmental impact while making sure clinical efficacy and safety isn’t compromised.
The earlier we can think about sustainability when designing and delivering our products, the better. Building in environmental metrics alongside clinical and safety metrics from the very beginning means we are much better able to anticipate and resolve aspects of product design which could have a negative environmental impact further down the line.
One example of this is our commitment to launch a next-generation respiratory inhaler to treat asthma and COPD with near zero climate impact propellants by 2025. Current pressurised metered-dose inhalers (pMDI) account for approximately 13% of our carbon footprint, so it’s crucial that alternative, environmentally friendly, clinically effective and safe products are developed. We expect the new propellants will have a carbon footprint 90–99% lower than older pMDIs, ensuring important therapeutic options for patients while protecting the environment.
How we operate our R&D sites globally is another way we can have a positive impact on the environment and achieve Ambition Zero Carbon – our commitment to ensure we have zero carbon emissions from operations across the world by 2025. We also have an even bigger ambition to become carbon negative across our entire value chain by 2030.
Our aim is to run and operate our sites, our labs, our experiments and all our activities in a sustainable way. To enable this, we are committed to designing out waste and designing in efficiency wherever we can.
As well as doubling energy productivity and using 100% renewable imported energy for electricity across our R&D sites, we have also launched a Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle programme to cut the number of single-use plastics. All the activities we have introduced are already paying off.
In Gothenburg, Sweden, we have almost achieved our zero carbon ambition five years ahead of target, with the introduction of innovative technologies such as high lift heat pumps making an important contribution. Since 2015, CO2 emissions at the site have fallen 99.2%.
In Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA, we have reduced the amount of waste produced by 370 tonnes since 2015 and are on track to achieve a 1,000 tonnes reduction this year from initiatives including composting and recycling. We have also reduced the amount of water used by more than 61,000m3 over the same time period. We plan to introduce even more efficient water technologies from 2021 and, to enable this, are conducting a comprehensive water audit to accurately measure how each litre of water is used.
All our buildings of the future are now being designed to use minimal energy and be carbon zero. Our new strategic R&D Centre in Cambridge, UK, has been built with environmental sustainability at its core, with heating and cooling from a ground source heat pump system integrated with widespread heat recovery and high levels of energy monitoring and control.
Another aspect that is vital to achieve our carbon negative ambition is sustainable collaboration. We are working with our external supply chain to ensure sustainability and environmental key performance indicators are met before we procure goods and services. By working together, we can realise our ambition of creating medicines with the minimal environmental impact.
R&D is crucial in helping AstraZeneca achieve its sustainability and environmental protection goals. We believe we have a duty of care to help improve people’s health while doing as much as we can to contribute to the health of the planet. Every change we implement, no matter how small, can make a difference.