The air logistics industry is an essential part in the fast and efficient distribution of time-sensitive pharmaceutical products around the world, enabling life-saving and life improving treatments to be administered to patients quickly and effectively, regardless of their geographical location.
Yet, understandably, the complexities involved in this global supply chain require a continually evolving balance between compliance, operational efficiency, product protection and sustainability.
Despite the obvious benefits to world health, the pharmaceutical industry is increasingly under scrutiny for its carbon footprint as vaccines and medicines are often produced in one country and distributed globally.
A 2019 study deduced that the industry generates about 48.55 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per $1 million. This is 55% higher than the emission intensity of the automotive industry.
While international shipment and collaboration are essential for ensuring equitable access to healthcare resources, promoting medical research and development, and addressing health disparities among different regions, many pharmaceutical organisations are reassessing their processes to take tangible actions to become more sustainable.
For example, Pfizer has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030 and announced a list of measures to achieve this.
The shipping of pharmaceuticals via air logistics is one area where huge differences can be made in terms of reducing environmental impact.
While a huge number of complex steps are required to ensure life-saving products arrive to patients safely and securely, careful consideration of partners and processes can help to improve sustainability across the pharmaceutical cold chain.
Timely delivery, intact condition, and a stable temperature – these are the fundamentals required for successful pharmaceutical shipping. Whatever the emphasis on sustainability, it cannot be at the expense of three essential elements:
1) A container robust enough to safeguard its contents, and eliminate breakage, throughout the various pressures faced during international freight.
2) Optimising the container's design to effectively regulate temperature, remove manual intervention and prevent excursions that might compromise the efficacy of the cargo.
3) Ensuring an optimal packaging-to-payload ratio for the container.
Ultimately, mitigating risk is the number one priority for pharmaceutical shipments. IATA reports that over 50% of all temperature excursions occur whilst a pharmaceutical shipment is under the control of an airline or within the airport environment. Research by the Institute for Human Data Science found that approximately $35 billion is lost annually to failures in temperature-controlled logistics.
The right system
As you might expect, all pharmaceutical cold chain containers share certain characteristics, in order to keep products safe from damage in transit while ensuring a consistent temperature.
However, there are a surprising number of differences between suppliers, giving air logistics professionals plenty of scope when it comes to selecting design, materials or thermal technology.
Each container type has its pros and cons, but what happens if we judge containers exclusively through the lens of sustainability? Which solutions offer the lowest environmental impact, without compromising the fundamentals outlined above?
The fundamental challenge in making a sustainable choice often revolves around navigating the perceived high costs associated with it – but we can learn lessons from the electric car industry, which showed how to change the conversation by emphasising the total cost of ownership.
Passive vs active containers
The biggest choice is whether to opt for an active container system (which maintains internal temperatures using an external energy source, typically electricity) or an advanced passive system, which uses only insulation and conditioned coolants within the container.
Given that airlines have limits on how much dry ice can be shipped, modern passive systems typically use phase change materials (PCMs), which store and release thermal energy during the process of melting and freezing.
PCMs are ideal for most applications, so that dry ice is added only to ship pharmaceuticals that must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures.
As a result, active and passive systems can both comfortably maintain internal temperatures over 120 hours, which puts the onus on other considerations.
From a sustainability viewpoint, it makes sense to eliminate reliance on electricity during transit. And for a global industry where containers may be delayed in remote locations – for example, in areas prone to power cuts – there’s a practical benefit to advanced passive systems, too.
Reusable vs single-use
A clear sustainability advantage is to choose reusable containers rather than single-use alternatives. Reusability is a compelling proposition, simply by the fact that containers stay in market circulation for a long time – and thus minimise the impact of carbon generated during manufacture.
Inevitably, reusable solutions must also be robust to withstand years of freighting, thereby decreasing packaging waste produced in comparison to single-use solutions which are discarded after one journey.
Research demonstrates that reusable passive shippers afford the lowest cost solution when compared to alternative systems. In our White Paper ‘The Total Cost of Shipping’, we analysed reusable passive shippers to single-use passive shippers and active shippers, on a range of cost factors. It was, respectively, 9% and 34% less expensive than the alternatives.
Keeping weight down
One trap it is easy to fall into is to overengineer solutions for greater temperature security – but at the expense of inefficiencies in terms of container weight and volumetric space.
Imprecision in the design of the container can greatly increase the overall weight of a package, making for heavier cargo loads, or superfluous void space that reduces the number of products that can be shipped in one container. Either way, the result is greater CO2 emissions.
Clever product design not only ensures the protective strength to achieve robustness; it also helps to achieve consistent (often sub-zero) temperatures and optimises the usage of internal space for greater volumetric efficiency.
Beyond the container itself, it’s also important to look at the values of the supplier itself. A commitment towards sustainability and wider ESG targets should be embedded throughout an organisation.
At Tower Cold Chain, we are demonstrating measurable progress on this journey, independently verified through recognised standards, such as EcoVadis Silver and ISO:14001.
In the end, however, it all circles back to the container. With several decades of research and development behind us, we know that our containers are robust enough to offer production protection while maximising volumetric efficiency, reliable in terms of maintaining a stable internal temperature performance without external power, and highly reusable.
The work towards sustainability continues. One of our latest initiatives is to use advanced automation technologies, linked to the extensive data we have collated from hundreds of thousands of shipments, to simplify the validation process.
We know from speaking to airline customers that validation is a key barrier when it comes to onboarding new advanced passive temperature-controlled containers, due to the time and cost involved – but it is also a major frustration in terms of sustainable practice as it requires numerous ‘dummy’ flights to achieve.
Instead, we will be able to prove systems are installed correctly from day one, that it operates as expected, and that all processes perform to specification – meaning airlines can onboard equipment much quicker, at less cost and, crucially, much more sustainably.