Single-use Biomanufacturing’s Environmental ImpactAfter much study, we now know quite a bit about the environmental stress in SU bioprocessing, as compared to conventional steel facilities. Advanced studies conclude that, for the majority of SU installations, there is actually an overall reduction in the net environmental footprint, or ecological stress, as compared to conventional glass and steel facilities. Very rigorous comparative Life-Cycle Assessments (LCA) indicate that often (rather surprisingly) SU bioprocessing technology exhibits a lower environmental impact in all impact categories examined. From terrestrial ecotoxicity, to marine eutrophication, to ozone depletion– in the long run SU-based manufacturing is equal to or even more environmentally friendly. For example, it’s been reported that operating a SU technology facility is in the order of 50% less energy intensive than one based on conventional stainless steel. This is primarily because heating highly processed water to clean and sterilize the reusable equipment consumes more energy than producing and disposing of plastic containers. Other calculations suggest that going SU results in an about 85% reduction in operational water usage and chemical waste generation. The best analyses show that right now the majority of SU manufacturing doesn’t conflict with sustainability goals at all, but in some cases is actually superior to the conventional stainless-steel engineering it replaces. Nevertheless, there are still areas of desired improvement. Many would like to reduce the environmental stress caused by disposal of used plastic containers. The good news is that creative approaches to the problem of repurposing or recycling the plastic waste have been continually arising.
Challenges in Handling Post-use Plastic ProductsRecycling plastic is not as easy as it may sound on the surface. The first challenge is the definition of terms and goals. We all want to improve our handling of used plastic material, but there aren’t even universally accepted goals to strive to. For example, much bioprocessing waste now ends up in a landfill. Would using it in a second operation (either the same activity, or a less stringent one such as in-process material storage) be an acceptable solution? What about diverting it to incineration to replace coal for power-generation? Even the generally heralded down-cycling of post-use plastic serving as a feedstock in the production of construction lumber or pallets is, by strict definitions, not truly “recycling”. And, by any definition, while very significantly reducing the environmental burden of each kilo of repurposed plastic, such downcycling doesn’t contribute to truly a “circular economy.” Another challenge is that when it comes to recycling, not all plastics products are equal; some are more difficult to recycle than others based on their collectability as well as their chemical and physical properties. Yet, another derives from the fact that each type of plastic is normally addressed and dealt with in different ways and many bioproduction materials are integrally composed of different plastic types. In addition, the material that the plastic is contaminated by, for example pharmaceuticals or GMOs, makes shipping and handling more difficult and more regulated than other plastic waste. In spite of these challenges, we do see an increasing number of journal publications describing new, creative approaches to managing plastic waste [2, 3, 4]. These approaches include new ideas for reuse, repurposing and even true recycling plastics that are more environmentally friendly and even require less processing. And, most agree that at this stage of technology, we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good– establishing significant gains in the handing of post-use materials is a noble goal. In general, the options available for the post-use handling of manufacturing plastics include the currently popular approaches of sending to a landfill or non-functional incineration. However, technology exists to “recycle” them by, eg:
- Using the entire object itself again in the same or less-stringent application, such as waste containment
- Recovering the object’s stored energy by direct incineration to eg, produce steam for power generation
- Recovering the stored energy using pyrolysis to produce a complex liquid mixture for such things as fuel
- Reusing the cast plastic polymer in its original state for producing such final products as lumber or roads
- Preparing and liquefying the plastic polymer (with a solvent or thermally) and employing in new product
- De-polymerizing the constituent polymer and re-polymerizing that same monomer as virgin plastic resin
- Breaking the plastic monomer down to its constituent simple chemicals for use in virgin plastic monomer
SummarySingle-use systems have been extensively studied and determined to be equal to, or in some cases, a more environmentally sustainable approach to biopharmaceutical manufacturing than more traditional stainless steel facilities. However, more can be done to ensure that the post-use plastic is handled in an environmentally friendly manner and does not end up in undesirable places. Much is going on, and it is very encouraging to see researchers developing creative processes and chemistries and providing new options for handling plastic waste. We also applaud suppliers who are working on other sustainable biomanufacturing solutions, such as engineering more sustainable plastic resins, creating products or processes with recyclability in mind, and teaming up with biopharmaceutical manufacturers to explore options ensuring these plastics are handled well post-use. Finally, look for future articles on The Cell Culture Dish exploring how those who are engineering biopharmaceutical facilities are improving many aspects of their design , including the sustainability of plant construction, operation, and decommissioning.
About the AuthorWilliam Whitford, Life Science Strategic Solutions Leader, DPS Group Bill Whitford has recently joined DPS Group as the Life Science Strategic Solutions Leader. Here he will assist in developing creative strategies supporting the manufacturing of both classical and innovative biotherapeutics. Bill began his carrier as an R&D Leader, commercializing over 40 distinct products supporting biomedicine and biomanufacturing. Applications ranged from assisted reproduction to the culture of animal cells in protein biological and vaccine production. Most recently Bill has been a thought leader identifying burgeoning biomedical products and processes. An invited lecturer at international conferences, he has published over 300 articles, book chapters, and patents in bioproduction; is a regular presenter at international conventions; and is an instructor in biomanufacturing.