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Visions of Sustainability
By Jacqueline Ignacio
Customer Sustainability Solutions Manager, Corporate Responsibility

The biomanufacturing industry, comprises biological systems to produce biomaterials and biomolecules for use in things like medicine, foods, beverages and industrial applications. The central piece of biomanufacturing infrastructure is the stainless-steel bioreactor, where chemical reactions are carried out. Its reliance on high energy and water use make them expensive to maintain from both a labor and environmental perspective. In the late 1990s, the biomanufacturing industry sought to raise productivity and lower costs in the manufacturing process. Above all else any new ideas would have to gain the trust of chemists to ensure that bacteria and other contaminants would not compromise the sterility of their batches.

Research led to the use of single-use plastics as an alternative to stainless-steel infrastructure. Over time the adoption of single-use plastics has helped users reduce considerable labor costs as well as the substantial water and energy use required to sterilize and re-use stainless-steel bioreactors. Single use plastics also contributed to reducing downtime in the manufacturing process. Less time cleaning means more time conducting biochemical processes.

Over the last decade "sustainability" has emerged as an aspirational buzz word in the research and science community; achieving it requires agile thinking and long-term investment. Within this period, { MilliporeSigma } has had a front row seat to an important change occurring within biopharma manufacturing and seized the opportunity to add sustainability to the equation. One key to the change was sterility, which was the focus of a pivot away from stainless-steel equipment that required high labor, water and energy costs towards the adoption of single use plastics. Another was about reducing downtime in the manufacturing process.

Today, adoption of single use technologies (SUT) is growing at approximately 25% per year and is estimated to generate 112,000 tons of plastic waste by 2025. In order to recycle single use plastics, { MilliporeSigma } had to overcome three challenges: 1) how to separate multiple types of plastics used within single use products; 2) how to address the biohazards often contained in the waste; and 3) how to deal with a lack of traceability within the current recycling infrastructure, leading to potential labor and ethical risks associated with further processing of these plastics.

These problems led to — what is today — the biopharma's industry's only program for recycling, formed through a unique partnership that { MilliporeSigma } developed with waste management company, Triumvirate Environmental. This one-of-a-kind collaboration turns used biopharma manufacturing plastics into plastic lumber for a variety of purposes.

While the advancement of single-use plastics brought many environmental advantages, it decreased the amount of energy and water used in traditional stainless-steel systems but led to unforeseen concerns among its users about what to do with all the plastic waste. Comparing the environmental impact of using stainless-steel versus single-use plastics represented a trade-off between excessive energy and water consumption to left-over plastic "waste."

Despite its greater, net-negative impact, energy and water use remained out-of-sight and out-of-mind. This was not the case with increasing piles of discarded single-use plastics, which adopters had not fully prepared to deal with.

Following the deployment of { MilliporeSigma }'s recycling program industry, buy-in from pharma's biggest players was important in validating its wide-ranging impact and long-term potential. Since it began 2.5 years ago, { MilliporeSigma } has enlisted 10 global biopharma companies into the program.

Among them is Johnson & Johnson, who, in referencing its own sustainability efforts acknowledged the { MilliporeSigma }/Triumvirate solution. On its corporate website Johnson & Johnson states:

Through a partnership with Triumvirate Environmental and { MilliporeSigma }, these manufacturing waste products can be recycled through a patented process that separates, sterilizes, grinds and blends the material to create industrial-grade plastic lumber that can be used to make everything from shipping pallets to borders for flower beds. — Johnson & Johnson

For its part the Johnson & Johnson program recycled approximately 50 tons of single-use technologies in 2017.

Further to industry engagement, { MilliporeSigma } also received industry acknowledgement for the initiative when it earned a 2018 Pharma Innovation Award for its "Biopharma Product Recycling Program".

When { MilliporeSigma } originally identified a need to recycle single-use plastics there was no roadmap for how to do it — the solution needed to be built from scratch. Fortunately, problem solving is a core tenet of { MilliporeSigma }'s culture and business. As a company predicated on science, problems — even ones like this — are always explored with a hypothesis and solution, always supported by facts. Th completion and deployment of this program is indicative of how { MilliporeSigma } pushes boundaries in providing the tools, equipment and supplies which support scientific research and discovery.

This program demonstrates how others can try something new when faced with a recycling challenge; ultimately supporting growth of the "circular economy."

Investment to Bring Change: Prior to deploying a solution to collect, process, recycle and reuse single-use plastics, 100% of the waste was sent to be buried in landfills or burned in incinerators. From the onset, { MilliporeSigma } has been guided by "Producer Responsibility," which places the responsibility to understand and manage the lifecycle of single-use plastics on the manufacturers that produce them. Since undertaking its recycling initiatives, { MilliporeSigma } has invested more than $2m in developing recycling programs that will address a challenging waste stream.

Inclusive Thinking: This long view has been met by a wide and inclusive view that to be successful, its recycling program would need to be holistic and include competitor products in use by participants as well as other products (e.g., plastics, wipes, hairnets, Tyvek™ suits, etc.), which the company does not manufacture. This program actually helps change the perspective around waste – away from a linear "take-make-waste" mentality and more towards circular, regenerative thinking.

Creating Sustained Value: Today, these single-use plastics are finding new life as plastic lumber sold by Triumvirate under the "BestPLUS" brand for use in construction, landscaping, as pallets or even synthetic turf. Customers include private sales and well-known retailers like the home improvement store Menard's. The result has opened up new job opportunities and produced an economically sustainable recycling process that is not dependent on sales of low-value plastic shred to outside manufacturers.

Over the last two years, the { MilliporeSigma } Biopharma Recycling Program has recycled over 2,000 tons of single-use waste, which has reduced user's waste streams and decreased greenhouse gas emissions by > 1,351 tons of carbon dioxide.

This reduction represents an estimated 22% recycling rate for the available waste in the East Coast region of the U.S.

The program provides 100% traceability of single use waste and a well-regulated process for managing and sterilizing the biohazardous components.

When the program first began in 2015, most biopharma industry organizations all but ignored the topic. Due to this program, today, a dialogue about recycling among biomanufacturers and users exists. Further to this point, in the last year, there has been an increase in the number of organizations and conferences devoting time to the topic of sustainability and disposal.