Supercritical sustainable solutions for pharma waste

November 16, 2022

Tali Harif, Ph.D, MBA, director, Business Development, UK & Europe at 374Water, shares how pharma manufacturers can adopt responsible waste management, and contribute to a cleaner, safer environment for employees and the community.

Key insights:

  • Pharma residues are emitted to the environment via different stages of their lifecycle, from production, to use and disposal – and the waste streams are highly neglected.
  • Adopting decentralised waste management technologies, such as SCWO, can sustainably treat contaminated wastewater.
  • Six action areas have been defined as national and regional government leaders have collaborated to promote cleaner manufacturing.

On a global scale, the EU is second (after the US) for pharmaceutical sales, holding 25% of the market. Between 2000 and 2020, pharma production doubled in Europe in terms of value, from €127B to €300B respectively, illustrating the industry’s importance as a key asset to the EU economy. That being said, it is recognised that more must be done to manage the multi-faceted detrimental impact the industry has on the environment in the form of environmental pollution and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

While the benefit of using medicines for preserving healthy populations is acknowledged, increasing concern over the potential adverse effects of these substances on ecosystems and on human health from direct exposure via polluted water sources. It is now widely accepted that pharmaceuticals and their residues – including active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), metabolites and transformation products – are emitted to the environment via different stages of their lifecycle, from production, to use and disposal.

The challenge of disposal

Until recently, waste streams from pharmaceutical production facilities had largely been neglected as a source of environmental pollution, even though pollution downstream of production plants has been sporadically observed. More recently, one review identified potentially high discharges from production facilities, creating point-source pollution and potentially leading to locally high concentrations.

Once in the environment, pharmaceuticals can remain in their initial compartment or transfer to another one (from water to soil or vice versa), leading to dispersed pollution, particularly if substances are not degraded naturally.

Managing waste streams from pharmaceutical production is challenging due to inconsistency of wastewaters, variable flows, diverse types of compounds with substantially different biodegradability potentials, and varying concentrations. Risk of toxic and persistent substances and high organic concentrations complicate treatment, which can result in the need to apply intensive and costly treatment processes, and in many cases necessitating disposal offsite.

Disposal of pharmaceutical waste streams has typically relied on stabilisation and landfilling, and also incineration. However, under the Landfill Directive, the ban on landfilling of liquid wastes and additional regulatory drivers towards more sustainable practices requires alternative disposal routes to be sought for many of these. Incineration, as a last resort for many waste streams, is not only expensive but a contributor of significant GHG emissions, which is counter-productive to the industry’s efforts to improve its Environmental Sustainability Governance (ESG) ratings and reduce its high carbon footprint. In fact, the pharma industry is a major contributor to global GHG emissions with a carbon intensity almost 55 percent higher than that of the automotive industry, and equating to a total of 552 megatons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2018.

Increasing awareness of environmental pollution, coupled with the lack of a dedicated EU regulatory framework to address specifically the challenges of pharmaceutical waste entering the eco-system, has attracted the attention of policy-makers. In 2013, the EU adopted legislation requiring the Commission to develop a strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment. In March 2019, The “European Union Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment”, presented as a Commission communication, set out key objectives and measures, with a view to reducing discharges, emissions and losses of such substances into the aquatic environment, also taking into account public health and the cost-effectiveness. Six action areas have been defined, including better waste management practices.

Adopting waste management strategies

To achieve both pollution reduction and GHG emission targets, production facilities will be required to implement intrinsically different waste management practices, utilising both new approaches and technological innovation. Decentralised point-source treatment for elimination of high strength and hazardous waste streams using supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) is a feasible and effective solution.

In fact, SCWO is able to change the paradigm of waste stream management at pharmaceutical production facilities and provide a truly sustainable solution that will also help facilities attain ESG targets.

The core of SCWO is a physical thermal process that leverages the unique qualities of water above its critical point (374oC and 221 bar) in the presence of an oxidant, yielding a highly effective oxidation reaction that entirely eliminates organic matter, and transforms organic wastes into clean water, energy, inert gas and an inert mineral stream.

SCWO is a sustainable process, powered by the energy contained in the organic waste, which is released during the reaction in the form of heat. In well-designed SCWO systems, this thermal energy is utilised and converted to electricity that self-powers the unit.

The systems are feedstock agnostic, and are able to treat diverse high strength waste streams, allowing production facilities more flexibility when managing waste streams derived from changing production needs. As a fully modular and retrofittable onsite solution, it also mitigates the need to haul wastes for landfilling or incineration and reduces subsequent costs and GHG emissions associated with offsite hazardous waste disposal.

The core benefits of applying SCWO in pharmaceutical production can be summarised in these key points: (1) Flexible and better onsite management of diverse organic waste streams / elimination of hazardous organic waste (2) Lower operational costs (3) Low carbon footprint (4) Energy positive / surplus thermal energy that can be utilised.

When considering the environmental challenges the pharmaceutical industry and in particular production facilities are facing, adoption of novel and green technologies such as SCWO, can deliver a genuine solution: mitigate corporate liabilities associated with environmental pollution, reduce reliance on unsustainable and costly processes, support ESG goals and future-proof operations in the increasingly stringent regulatory landscape.