The bioprocessing industry could play a role in many of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable-development goals, from good health and well-being to responsible consumption and production. More than a goal for the bioprocessing industry, sustainability should be more of a mandate. As Sameer Kalghatgi, PhD, director of manufacturing at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies noted: “Sustainability isn’t just an ethical stance anymore; it’s a strategic choice.”

To a large extent, however, bioprocessing’s impact on the environment remains unknown. For instance, Sumesh Sukumara, PhD, senior researcher and group leader at the Technical University of Denmark’s Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, and his colleagues found that “environmental sustainability assessments have been conducted for only around 0.2% of pharmaceuticals, environmental impacts have significant variations among the assessed products, and different impact categories have not been consistently studied.”

Optimize existing processes

Although Sukumara and his colleagues encouraged studying the industry’s environmental impact, they also pointed out the need to optimize existing bioprocesses and consider combinations with synthetic approaches in some situations.

Improving the sustainability of bioprocessing can be approached from various levels. Some companies, for example, advertise consumables with reduced packaging. Some bioprocessors get greener by turning waste into raw materials. The European Commission even offers funding for zero-waste, zero-pollution approaches to biorefineries.

From a much broader perspective, Barkha Singhal, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Biotechnology at Gautam Buddha University in India, and her colleagues encouraged bioprocessors to increase the sustainability of the entire bioeconomy. That economy, though, could reach even farther than expected—maybe even into outer space. Although developing bioprocessing in outer space focuses on methods to be used in exploring our galaxy or even building colonies on other planets, Aaron Berliner, PhD, aerospace engineering lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues pointed out that “providing for the future health of our home planet is possibly the greatest return on investment.” For instance, they noted that some bioreactor technology developed for space programs could also improve bioprocessing on Earth.

Although piecemeal approaches make some impact on bioprocessing’s sustainability, bigger impacts would come from better assessments of the problem and creating systemic improvements. Only then will Kalghatgi’s idea of sustainability as a strategic choice be realized.

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