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Leiden industrial ecologist and Italian pharma company receive an EU grant to realise sustainable drug production

With a €1.5 million European grant, industrial ecologist Stefano Cucurachi will work on more sustainable production methods for the pharmaceutical industry. The Italian company Angelini Pharma intends to use the resulting knowledge to make its production process more sustainable.

Stefano Cucurachi specialises in LCA: life cycle assessment. A good method to find out what environmental impacts a product or production system has from cradle to grave. This expertise is of interest in meeting the pharmaceutical industry's need to take action for sustainability. The Italian company Angelini Pharma announced the launch of LIFE-GREENAPI, an initiative designed to develop pharma production practices with low environmental impact. LIFE-GREENAPI is being launched with the assistance of a €1.5M grant from the LIFE Programme, the European Commission's funding instrument for environment and climate action.

Making pharmaceutical industry more sustainable

Angelini Pharma produces active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and acknowledged the urge to become more sustainable. The company wants to converse the production process and consider the environment in this conversion. Cucurachi and the grant are going to help realise this.

Choosing sustainability with the help of science

Cucurachi: ‘In our science group, we apply LCA in the earliest stages of innovation and R&D, with new methods and open-source software. Ex-ante LCA is what we call it. Together with PhD students and postdocs, for example, I have been involved in supporting the sustainable development of a new generation of solar cells (Sitasol) and novel approaches to valorise wastewater to produce hydrogen (H2Steel). We help decision-makers and designers choose more sustainable methods or materials. My expertise is supporting innovation as it happens.'

Analysing the entire life cycle 

As the word suggests, an LCA study involves analysing the entire life cycle. No mean feat, says Cucurachi: ‘Since product systems in our globalised economy are highly interconnected, an LCA study models complex exchanges with the natural environment and with other product systems. To assess a system, you usually have background processes, such as electricity production and transport. For that, you use standard databases compiled over time and also specified by region. For example, you can specify that the energy feeding your production processes comes from the Netherlands or Italy. After all, the energy mixes of the Netherlands and Italy are different.’

Cucurachi continues: ‘For the so-called foreground system, which are all the processes specific to the product system you are evaluating, you have to collect data yourself from project partners.'
With Angelini Pharma, Cucurachi makes several analyses: first of the production process as it is now, and then of several possible alternatives the pharma is considering. Depending on the LCA results, these can then be adjusted. Flow chemistry is complex, Cucurachi knows, it will be quite a puzzle. The partners are counting on a three-year collaboration within their LIFE-GREENAPI project.

Pharmaceutical industry as a whole

What if the most sustainable method is not the cheapest? What will the company do then? 'We have included concrete targets, KPIs (critical performance indicator, ed.) and commitments, which will be monitored regularly. And our LCA and risk assessment work contributes to this monitoring.' The study also provides valuable knowledge in a broader sense, says Cucurachi. 'We provide a benchmark that provides insight and can drive sustainability in the pharmaceutical industry as a whole beyond this project.'

Text: Rianne Lindhout

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