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Sustainability Interview – Life Cycle Assessment

Today we have a special guest – Bill Flanagan to give us great insight into Sustainability in our industry. It is such a pleasure to be able to interview someone who has numerous publications related to sustainability.

Our Sales & Marketing Director Dr Yuki Abe () interviews Dr Bill Flanagan ().

First of all, Thank you so much for your time today. It is so lovely to be able to interview you. For our readers, would you kindly introduce yourself?

Certainly! I’m Bill Flanagan, Co-Founder & Director of Aspire Sustainability, a small consultancy focused primarily on LCA and Product Sustainability Strategies. I have a PhD in Chemical Engineering, and my focus during my graduate thesis was biotechnology – specifically the production of penicillin-G using immobilized cells of P. chrysogenum in a fluidized bed bioreactor. While in graduate school I also took a specialized lab course in mammalian cell technology, which was limited to 4 students given the intensive nature of the course. As my career progressed through various twists and turns, I became an expert in environmental sustainability and specifically carbon footprinting and life cycle assessment. In 2014 I was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement award in LCA by the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA), and I am currently the Chair, Board of Directors, of the ACLCA. I currently work with a wide variety of client companies ranging from start-ups to some of the largest, well-known companies. I love my work! It is so interesting and satisfying to work with energized teams, helping to understand environmental impacts and develop new sustainability strategies.

Thank you. When we talk about the sustainability in general, I think of Plastic Pollution, Single Use Bags, Water Usage at home and landfills full of still wearable clothes which includes clothing industry using non-sustainable materials etc. When we say “Sustainability” in our industry, what type of things are we looking at?

For any industry, of course, we need to first understand if there are any “hot button” topical issues of public concern (whether justified or not). Then we need to step back and develop an objective, data driven understanding of where the real hotspots actually are. I first got involved with the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry sometime around 2010. The biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry had begun asking questions about whether adopting a single-use approach involving consumable plastics might be heading in the wrong direction environmentally. We performed two initial LCA studies using entirely different approaches and data sets, and both studies revealed a surprising and counterintuitive result that the use of single-use technology can actually be better for the environment since single-use technologies reduce or eliminate the need for CIP / cleaning and sterilization between batches, and the associated reduction in environmental impact can significantly offset the environmental burden associated with manufacturing and disposal of single-use components. Since then, we’ve performed additional LCA studies to understand key variables. For example, if the biopharma manufacturing facility is located in a region in which the electricity supply is “green”, the environmental burden associated with energy consumption can be much lower, which reduces the advantage of single-use technology. Other factors such as long distance supply chain transport logistics (especially if air transport is involved) can also affect the comparison between traditional and single-use technologies. Another point I should make is that even though single use technologies may be better for the environment overall, they do lead to increased solid waste disposal issues for manufacturers. Therefore, we should be working on ways to recycle or reuse materials. Alright, so getting back to the “hot button” issues. Two very important topical issues for the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry (with respect to adoption of single-use technologies) are plastics disposal issues (e.g., plastics in the ocean – even though it is quite unlikely that these are coming from the biopharma industry due to tight controls on treatment and disposal) and an increasing interest in focusing on a “circular economy” (i.e., optimizing the use and re-use of materials). We still have a lot of work to do!

How long ago did you start looking into Life Cycle Assessment?

I first became aware of LCA in the late 1990s when I led a study group focused on the emerging field of industrial ecology. At that time, LCA was still a relatively young field (compared to now), and although it was fascinating to learn about, the timing wasn’t right in terms of identifying how to apply these approaches in a business-relevant way. Over the next decade or so my career evolved as I took on leadership roles in advanced materials R&D. In 2007 the time was right to take a fresh look at LCA and how it might be useful in supporting green products. I formed a Center of Excellence, and over the next 10 years we developed LCA and product sustainability strategies and performed more than 40 LCA and carbon footprint studies working with a wide variety of industry sectors. The experience we gained was invaluable as we learned how to successfully leverage LCA and product sustainability to create business value, which enabled us to thrive in a competitive business environment. In 2017, my colleague Angela Fisher and I spun off to form Aspire Sustainability. Clients seek us out specifically for our unique combination of deep technical expertise and business-savvy strategic perspective.

Would you kindly explain more about what is Life Cycle Assessment and why it is important?

LCA is a powerful approach to understanding the environmental impacts and benefits of a product or technology and provides a unique, comprehensive perspective. LCA is holistic in two very important ways: (1) it looks at the entire value chain of a product, starting with materials extraction from the earth, through refining, parts and components manufacturing, product assembly, distribution, use, and disposal or recycling at the end of the product’s useful life; and (2) it looks at a variety of environmental impact categories such as carbon, energy and water footprint as well as more esoteric categories such as eutrophication, acidification, and so on. These perspectives provide us with insights regarding any trade-offs or burden shifts as we contemplate product design changes. For example, a change in material specification could lower environmental impact during product use but increase environmental impact in the supply chain, or in other cases a design change may shift the burden from one impact category to another (e.g., an engine design changes that leads to lower NOx combustion emissions but also has lower fuel efficiency). LCA is the only approach I am aware of that can help us avoid unintended consequences as we change the world around us.

Sorry to jump around, but I want to go back to the Sustainability aspect of our industry. What type of analysis do you think Innovative End User companies should look at as well as more Technology Innovative Offering companies? What can be the same aspect and what can be the different aspects?

I think LCA is certainly a key aspect regardless of whether a company is a technology supplier or a biotherapeutic manufacturer. A number of biopharma companies have been exploring LCA with respect to bioprocess development, technology selection, and/or technology development. The technology suppliers need to understand the benefits and impacts of their technologies in the hands of manufacturers, and manufacturers need information about the technologies they are using. Ideally, both technology providers and users should be working together.

Do you think we are making as good progress as other industries? For example, when I cloth shop now for myself or my daughter, I tends to try finding the companies who are trying to use more sustainable materials, eco friendly tanning or organic cotton etc. Even for make ups, I became more conscious about what I am buying. Certainly, they are talking a lot about Sustainability. Are we talking enough about it from your opinion?

I may be biased since my engagement with the biopharma industry is specifically focused on sustainability, but from my vantage point I get to see a lot of company-specific sustainability efforts, as well as cross-industry efforts such as the American Chemistry Society Green Chemistry Institute’s (ACS GCI) Pharmaceutical Roundtable, whose members have been collaborating both on Process Mass Intensity (PMI) metrics as well as LCA. The Bio-Process Systems Alliance (BPSA) has an active sustainability committee. In the US, members of the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing (NIIMBL) are studying the sustainability of biopharmaceutical manufacturing. Additional efforts are underway looking at recycling of single-use consumables. Of course, we still have a lot of work to do, but the combination of company-specific and cross-industry efforts is a good sign!

For us to spread more thoughts of Sustainability in our industry, what do you think we should do more of?

We need to continue studying and understanding the environmental sustainability implications of biopharmaceutical manufacturing, and then make sure we are communicating well both across the industry as well as to key stakeholders (including the public). It is easy to point the finger at corporations and industrial activities, but it is important to understand the nuances in the context of the benefits the industry provides to society, which in the case of the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry are huge!

Thank you so much Bill for your time today. We are very much looking forward to speaking with you again soon. And chance to collaborate further.

For the next release of BioSolve Process 9.0 (date to be announced), we are including Sustainability Metrics which can look into Carbon Dioxide Footprint and Energy usage. We already have good interest from our user communities. If you would like to know more, please sign up to our newsletter from Book Demo/Contact form.