Biomanufacturers are transitioning to greener, more sustainable processes and facilities, and some of the largest pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions before 2050. What constitutes environmentally responsible practices, however, isn’t as clearcut as it seems.

Take single-use biobags. By eliminating the need for cleaning, they reduce the use of water and fuel for steam, but the bags are petroleum-based. Likewise, replacing plastics with fiber-based pulp reduces fossil fuels consumption, but reinstates the paper or plastic dilemma, which 20 years ago was solved with plastic, says William Whitford, life science strategic solutions leader, DPS Group.

Even renewable energy entails compromises. Although they reduce biomanufacturers’ dependence upon fossil fuel, the environmental impact from the mining of rare earth elements (often in regions with lax environmental standards) that are used to make wind turbines and solar panels is often overlooked. So is the carbon footprint required to ship those elements to manufacturers, the components to assembly plants, as well as the products to installation sites that, often, are on other continents.

“The first steps in any ‘green’ program are to identify the precise problem you are trying to solve and who you are trying to help,” Whitford says. “Otherwise, the questions become too vague for practical solutions.”

Ambiguity in semantics

Understand the measurement being used, too, he adds. As he cautions, “There is ambiguity in semantics.” For example, biopharma professionals generally equate sustainability with reducing environmental toxicity, but other stakeholders define it differently.

The UN’s 17 goals for sustainable manufacturing include eliminating poverty and hunger and ensuring quality education and gender equality, in addition to environmental improvements.

Whether something is sustainable also varies by geography. “Electrification is a goal for facilities, but if your utility burns coal, electrifying more processes may not be more sustainable,” continues Whitford. “It offers you the potential to become more sustainable later, however.”

In determining whether a product or process is truly sustainable, “you have to look at tradeoffs,” Whitford says, and determine whether they are reasonable.

To help, “there are dozens of certification organizations, like EcoVadis and GreenSeal, but some can suffer from a limited scope or dimensionality,” he points out while advising to also carry out a comprehensive assessment that considers all environmental burdens—beginning with the ultimate source of raw materials, and continuing through the supply chain and manufacturing, and including the product’s lifespan and final deposition.

Transitioning to more sustainable biomanufacturing is a complex endeavor with few easy answers. Instead, what constitutes “sustainable” often varies by location and definition. Therefore, Whitford stresses, “Look beyond the surface and conduct a comprehensive, science-based life cycle assessment.”