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    Jan 2022
    Written by Luka Brown

    Nature’s medicine: The link between the pharmaceutical industry and biodiversity

    The pharmaceutical industry has been at the forefront of medical advancements over the past century. Discovering and producing novel drugs has been the foundation for treating and curing a range of diseases and illnesses. However, the pharmaceutical industry is reliant on the biosphere to support its value chain.

    Pharmaceutical Industry and Biodiversity

    The primary impacts of the pharmaceutical value chain on biodiversity

    Nature’s medicine

    The pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on biodiversity for its research and development programmes. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, over 80% of registered medicines either come from, or have been inspired by, the natural world. For example, it was recently discovered that a traditional medicinal plant used for generations in Samoa has similar properties to ibuprofen. But many of the world’s diseases do not have a known treatment. This has increased the demand for new drugs, which is driving biodiversity loss. Overharvesting of wild plants can result in species reduction, and at worst, extinction. In tandem, biodiversity loss is driving drug loss. It is estimated that at least one important undiscovered drug is lost every two years from biodiversity loss.

    Pharmaceutical Industry and Biodiversity

    15,000 flowering plants are threatened with extinction in the wild from overharvesting for medicinal use, including the snowdrop (Image Source: Yoksel Zok on Unsplash)

    Excipients are the non-active substances used in drugs. They can control attributes such as how the drugs are released in the body, i.e., immediately or with a delay. As excipients can account for 99% of some drugs, they can have significant environmental impacts if they are not sourced sustainably. For example, corn starch is used in ibuprofen, so the pharmaceutical companies need to consider not just the active ingredient but also, for example, the impacts pesticides and fertilisers have on the cultivation of corn.


    Manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs involves processing active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) into a consumable form. APIs are the biologically active ingredients in the drug and these have now been found in surface water, groundwater, soil and other environments around the globe. Pharmaceutical products are designed to resist chemical breakdown in the body, which means that they can remain active for a long time in the environment, thereby affecting biodiversity. APIs enter the environment in this stage though wastewater, so the environmental risks are especially apparent in areas with insufficient sewage treatment. Some APIs can bioaccumulate in non-target organisms to alter their behaviour. For example, a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in China was found to release enough APIs to disturb the reproductive patterns of aquatic vertebrates.

    Pharmaceutical Industry and Biodiversity

    Several vulture species showed a decline in population after eating carcasses with residues of diclofenac (Voltaren) (Image Source: Glen Carrie on Unsplash)

    Green chemistry principles are being used in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry to reduce its environmental footprint, for example, by minimising the use of hazardous chemicals and using other methods, such as biotechnology. In the manufacturing process, solvents account for 80% of waste. Some solvents are highly toxic and will damage the environment if released. Green chemistry can reduce the need for chemical solvents. For example, Pregabalin is now being made using water instead of chemical solvents, which has eliminated the release of chemicals and has reduced the total energy use by 83%.


    Some pharmaceutical products require a controlled temperature to ensure they do not become spoiled. To achieve this, they are transported in temperature-regulated environments, such as refrigerated trucks. This requires a greater amount of energy to maintain a constant temperature. If the transport is fossil-fuel dependent, it can contribute to climate change, and therefore biodiversity loss. Switching to more environmentally friendly fuels will reduce this impact.

    The packaging of pharmaceuticals also affects the environment. For example, blister packaging is used to contain tablets or capsules. It is typically made from aluminium or PVC. These materials require large amounts of water to produce and rely on the extraction of raw materials, such as bauxite. Companies can change to using paper blister packaging, which is more sustainable and doesn’t require virgin materials.

    Just what the doctor ordered

    Every year, 100,000 tonnes of pharmaceutical products are consumed globally. According to a report by AstraZeneca, around 88% of APIs found in the environment are from patient use and excretion. Between 30 and 90% of the API is excreted from the patient in their urine. As mentioned previously, API release into the environment can have adverse impacts on biodiversity and could have unknown additive effects when combined.

    Pharmaceutical Industry and Biodiversity

    APIs are not yet regularly monitored in surface water, which may have significant impacts for the species dependent on it (Image Source: Belinda Fewings)

    Refrigeration is used to preserve drugs and vaccines. This uses hydrofluorocarbons, which are man-made greenhouse gases. The main hydrofluorocarbon used in refrigeration is HFC-134a, which has a global warming potential 1430 times higher than carbon dioxide. This has a large environmental cost as it contributes to climate change. This could be reduced by transitioning to refrigeration that uses hydrofluorocarbons with a lower global warming potential.


    Pharmaceutical waste is produced from drugs that have expired, are unused, are damaged or are no longer needed. According to NHS England, £300 million’s worth of medicines are wasted in the NHS each year. To reduce the environmental impact of pharmaceutical waste, companies can design drugs to degrade in the environment or be fully metabolised by the body. Current sewage treatment plants cannot remove pharmaceutical drugs from wastewater. More research is needed on how to separate and remove pharmaceuticals from wastewater to help safeguard the environment.

    Looking forward…

    Biodiversity provides the foundations for the development of new drugs in the pharmaceutical industry. It is worthwhile investing in operations that support, rather than damage, biodiversity to minimise supply risk. Inaction could result in at least one important undiscovered drug being lost every two years. Green chemistry principles also support biodiversity by reducing the release of harmful chemicals and APIs into the environment.

    According to our FTSE 100 report, none of the pharmaceutical companies in the FTSE 100 have carried out a biodiversity audit. This presents an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to understand and minimise their biodiversity impacts.

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    *Banner photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash