The Environmental Impact of Disposables

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BioPharm International, BioPharm International-11-01-2008, Volume 21, Issue 11

Despite creating plastic waste, the disposables option is better for the environment.

At the 2008 Interphex convention in March, I moderated a discussion entitled, "The Fully Disposable Biomanufacturing Process: If or When?" In that session, the audience and the panelists—Peter Watler of JM Hyde and Geoff Hodge of Xcellerex—explored a wide range of factors, such as cost, current limitations (e.g., scale, Protein A chromatography), and more importantly, whether a fully disposable bioprocess would be desirable. The question no one had the data to address, however, was a critical one: What would be the environmental impact of such a scenario?

Laura Bush

Finally, we have an answer.

Lindsay Leveen of Genentech and Andrew Sinclair of BioPharm Services, along with several colleagues, have addressed this question in the disposables supplement that accompanies this issue. In their article, they compare the environmental footprint of a stainless steel–based bioprocessing facility with one based on disposables.


The study was comprehensive. The authors examined facility size, water consumption, energy use, and carbon emissions in all steps of a monoclonal antibody manufacturing process, starting with mining the iron ore to make steel and ending with the incineration of plastic material after use.

The result? Despite creating plastic waste, the disposables option was better for the environment. The improvement resulted from several main areas:

  • Water: Whereas the stainless steel option used 104,534 L of water per batch of monoclonal antibody, the diposables-based facility used only 13,524 L—thus reducing water consumption by 87%.

  • Labor: The disposables option required 21% less labor, primarily by reducing clean-in-place activities.

  • Facility size: The disposables-based facility was 38% smaller overall.

  • Energy consumption: Because the disposables-based plant was smaller, it required 29% less energy to run.

All of this translates into a smaller carbon footprint. Even taking into account the carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing, transporting, and incinerating plastics, the disposables-based facility produced 25% less carbon dioxide than the stainless steel–based facility.

Studies like this one make an important contribution to reducing global warming by providing the information needed to support decisions. Fortunately, the study results are reassuring, given the growing use of single-use processing equipment. It means the current trend, driven by quality and cost considerations, turns out to be a good environmental choice.

The study had one surprising finding, however. In both the stainless steel and disposables-based plants, the biggest source of carbon emissions was not maintaining cleanrooms, manufacturing steel, or incinerating plastic. It was employees driving to work.

As that finding reminds us, to reduce global warming we must tackle fundamental issues like transportation. Doing so will require a combination of efforts. At the personal level, it will require choices to drive smaller vehicles, obey speed limits, and carpool. Genentech, for one, is doing its part on this front, by offering employees cash incentives to carpool. At the policy level, it will require investments in mass transit, and legislation to force car makers to improve fuel efficiency.

In the meantime, it is good to see that the biotech industry is heading in the right direction.

Laura Bush is the editor in chief of BioPharm International,