August 20, 2021

The 5 R's in the life sciences industry

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

The 5 R's in the life sciences industry

Sure, healthcare and pharma do a whole lot of good in the world - but this doesn't make us exempt from taking our plastic waste seriously.

So, join Conor and Dodi as they talk about the 5 R's with their guests:

Tom Szaky, Founder and CEO at TerraCycle; Cristina Peixoto, Head of Lab at iBET (Instituto de Biologia Experimental e Tecnologica, Portugal) and Joëlle Cristofani from Cytiva.


DODI: It was Earth month in April, and we spent the month practicing the five R's. Conor, can you name them?

CONOR: So, I thought it was three R's, reduce, replace, and refine in animal testing, but I guess this is something else.

DODI: Well, for experts in sustainability, there are five and they are refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle.

CONOR: So, all these R's are really about what we do with our unwanted stuff. So, we're talking about waste.

DODI: Yes. But not only me, listen to this guy.

TOM SZAKY: An amazing canvas for innovation, because no one's looking at it. It's incredibly purposeful, and everything becomes waste. So, we get the pleasure and the privilege of working with, you know, on everything from syringe filters, to chewing gum recycling, to you name it.

DODI: People like ignoring garbage, you know, it's like out of sight out of mind, or ''ew, that's gross''. But here's a guy who says, ''I want to think about garbage''.

CONOR: Okay, so garbage. I guess that's what matters on today's episode of Discovery Matters.

TOM SZAKY: Everything we possess will one day be property of a waste management company.

DODI: This is Tom Szaky. He is the CEO of TerraCycle. And they think a lot about garbage.

TOM SZAKY: With no exception. In fact, 99% of the things we buy become property of a garbage company within the year of purchase.

CONOR: Okay, so that's an angle I hadn't thought of. So, the majority of what we actually buy becomes garbage the same year as we buy it.

DODI: I know, it blew my mind when Tom told me that. Immediately, I started thinking about every mob movie anywhere, right? Because what do they do? They get into waste management.

CONOR: ''I'm in the waste management business. Everybody immediately assumes you're mobbed up. It’s a stereotype, its offensive.''

DODI: ''You try to leave, and they pull me back in.''

CONOR: ''You're the last person I would expect to perpetuate it.''

DODI: All right.

CONOR: There is no mafia.

DODI: Nice Tony Soprano imitation you did there, Conor. Let's go back to Tom. Let's talk about Tom. He has a really interesting backstory.

TOM SZAKY: You know, so for me, my story started in Budapest, I was born in Hungary in '82. And that's only really relevant because we're still communist at the time, behind the Iron Curtain, and in '86, Chernobyl happened with nuclear meltdown. And the borders collapsed for a day or two, my parents effectively escaped. They're both physicians. And as four years old, I'm in the car, you know, we're leaving the country effectively as political refugees, landing in Germany, then Holland and then finally in Canada, when I was seven, and my parents still live up in Toronto. Then I came down to College in New Jersey, just how I ended up here where I'm speaking to you from today.

DODI: Today, he lives in New Jersey.

CONOR: No, you're kidding. Just like Tony Soprano.

DODI: Stop it. Stop it. Tom is telling his story, because essentially, he moved from communism to the heartland of capitalism.

TOM SZAKY: I fell in love with entrepreneurship that, you know, in high school, probably honestly, for the selfish reasons of fame and fortune.

DODI: And he got into Princeton.

TOM SZAKY: But I had this huge turning point. You know, I remember this so clearly in the first class in Princeton that I took was economics 101. And the professor gets up on stage and asks, ''What's the purpose of business?'' She was looking for in the textbook answers maximize profit to one stakeholder/shareholders. And that's it. Now, that took a bit of wind out of my sails, because like a business interacts with so many stakeholders, so how can that be the point?

DODI: So, for him profit was not the point of a business, at the same time he was starting his journey into waste management.

TOM SZAKY: But I wanted to really create an organization that made a difference for society and for the planet. And to me, you know, I was thinking about this sort of searching for an idea. And garbage became the topic because it is such a fascinating undiscovered route.

DODI: And as a freshman at Princeton, he realized that worm poop could be used as fertiliser.

CONOR: Okay worm poo.

DODI: And Tom knew that this could earn him some money. So, he maxed out his credit card, got some investors, and started selling this fertilizer out of his car at a local gardening centre. I mean, as you do, right, he dropped out of college, formed this company that turns garbage into new incredible things, and that is what has become TerraCycle.

CONOR: Tony would have freaked out if Meadow had quit college to go into...

DODI: I think Tony Soprano would admire Tom Szaky.

CONOR: Eventually we get into waste management.

DODI: Exactly. Anyway, so Tom and his colleagues found that one of the problems with scaling up recycling is that it is expensive.

TOM SZAKY: Take an example, city the city Philadelphia used to make about $67 a tonne on its recyclables back in 2012, today they have to pay $105 a tonne to see the same material recycled. And this is just your aluminum cans, and your PET bottles, but what is the city of Philadelphia, like most cities around the world, going to do? They're going to either stop it and geographically constrain it, which means some citizens may not access it anymore. And 100% constraint what goes in the bin, and you may not know, it may just be that they sort out less on the other side, because there's a big difference between what you put in your recycling bin and what is actually recycled.

CONOR: So basically, he's making it profitable to recycle.

DODI: Exactly. He says, most people think that the reason we don't recycle is technology, and that we don't know how to recycle all materials. But the question is really about, can a garbage company make money?

TOM SZAKY: What about 90% of the goods, you know, from your dirty diaper to a piece of chewing gum to a syringe filter that today cannot be recycled, it's the vast majority. And why it can't be recycled is simply because it costs too much to collect and process relative to the resulting material value that you can get at the end from in the case of a syringe filter the polymers that it's made from. So, what we do is we partner with conscientious stakeholders, could be manufacturers, could be retailers, could be governments facilities, you name it, who are willing to fund the cost of whatever it actually costs to collect the material and process it minus whatever we can then sell of course, you know the resulting materials for and through that funding, we solve the most important gap. The economic gap.

DODI: Most of the time, they come up with really cool solutions, like a coffee table made out of cigarette waste, or watering can made out of crisp packets. I mean, I think Conor, you've probably seen on board Panda or on Life Hack or some of these, these websites where you see a cool meme about stuff made out of garbage.

CONOR: Yes, exactly how to reuse or upcycle and so on. Yeah.

DODI: Exactly. But now we're going to take a commercial break for just a moment. We don't usually talk about our company Cytiva in this show.

CONOR: Oh, are we going to shill?

DODI: Yes, let’s shill. So Cytiva has started working with TerraCycle on recycling materials that are usually really difficult to recycle. So, syringe filters, for example.

CONOR: So those are the little filters that go on the end of the syringe between the syringe and the needle to make sure that like nothing gets in, and so on. Right?

DODI: Exactly. And these are single use, you use it, you throw it away, it's better to use it once and throw it away rather than reuse because of the implications on patients. But we at Cytiva, don't just accept that we should throw it away and stop thinking about it once it hits the bin. And so, this idea of recycling something that is in the biopharmaceutical industry is a new idea for TerraCycle. But they love it, because they're all about give us a tough problem to solve.

TOM SZAKY: I'm not just excited for where, you know, our journey will go together. But how it will inspire this entire sector, because in medical products, the amount of waste is very, very high as you look at all the different sectors around the world. So, I think there's something really dynamic we can achieve together. Specifically, you know, in the work we're doing, but also send messages, you know, to the broader community of folks in the space.

CONOR: So, what happens with these syringe filters instead of throwing them in the bin, now? Where do they go?

DODI: Well, we've produced special Zero Waste boxes, and we ask our customers to collect syringe filters in those boxes.

TOM SZAKY: From there, it comes into one of our TerraCycle warehouses, and then we stage it. And then from there, our scientists reviewed these products and have developed recycling solutions where we can shred them, isolate the different plastics and polymers that exists and then from there, make it into new plastic products. So, it could be everything from a plastic bench all the way to shipping pallets, and other extrusion and injection molded polymers. So that creates the engine, if you will, now rendering syringe filters together, recyclable.

DODI: And then the question is, how do we make this is big as possible? So, it's not just offering an option, but getting the majority of all syringe filters that are out there?

TOM SZAKY: You know, could we do even higher applications to the material, ideally one day even getting it back into your own supply chain.

CONOR: So, for TerraCycle, there must be a bunch of challenges in the biopharmaceutical industry...

TOM SZAKY: Because of just the need of precision and safety. There's a lot of single use. Now some single use products, yes do interact with biological materials or other dangerous materials. And by law, those have to go to incineration. But if you actually zoom out and look at what goes through facilities, the vast majority does not fall into that category.

DODI: Tom wants us to change the way we think about manufacturing and recycling. So, he says recycling is a solution to the symptom of waste, not the root cause.

TOM SZAKY: 100 years ago, an average Western female shopper would have bought to, this is 1920, two apparel items a year, and they would have lasted 20 years. They would have been mended, altered, and 20 years, later they would have become a rag. Today...?

DODI: All right, Conor, how many items of clothing do you think an average woman in the Western world buys within one year?

CONOR: I'm sure it's more than they need. I'm not going to go any further than that.

DODI: You better not, you know, with your daughter and your wife probably close by in the room. Let's let Tom answer it.

TOM SZAKY: 66 per year, it went from two a year to 66 per year. That's 33x increase. But then here's the crazy part. How many average wearings before disposal?

CONOR: And I'm not going to answer that question, either, because I think it's probably not... I just don't want to dig that hole for myself.

DODI: Okay, well done. Well done. I'll give you the answer. It is three. On average, in the Western world, we were an article of clothing three times before tossing it.

TOM SZAKY: It all boils down to our act of purchase. When we purchased something, it's a vote for more strain on our planet, more mining, more farming, you name it.

DODI: So that is why it's so important to think about what we produce and how we can avoid making it become waste. So much of that stuff goes to landfills. It's just piles, and piles of garbage. Speaking of landfills, did you know that last year in 2019, Cytiva helped to divert three tonnes of material from landfills by taking old instruments back from customers or buying back old instruments from customers and remanufacturing them.

CONOR: Okay, that's amazing. It's good. I can't imagine it's enough yet.

DODI: It's not enough yet. So, this is another Cytiva story coming your way and the link here is sustainability, right? We've gone from reducing waste, and now we're again reducing waste but in a different way with instruments. Cytiva has leading edge chromatography systems, and these are essential instruments for advanced research tasks. At the same time, a lot of startups, universities, and institutes can't afford buying these instruments brand new. So, we have a refurbishing and remanufacturing programme. It started one decade ago. And we've recently delivered the 1,000th remanufactured instrument, so it's growing up.

CONOR: So that's fabulous. So, can we go back to the person who first sold one of these?

JOELLE CRISTOFANI : I've been in the company for 32 years now.

DODI: This is Joelle Cristofani.

JOELLE CRISTOFANI : My art is in chromatography. So, I would like to be a chromatography specialist, but no.

DODI: 10 years ago, Joelle received a request from a customer in Grenoble, and that is the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

JOELLE CRISTOFANI : This customer would like to buy your Biacore™ system with a limited budget. In fact, the first idea was to go towards demo instrument.

DODI: Joelle went to talk to a Cytiva colleague who was in charge of the refurbishing business programme. And he suggested a new way of getting a less costly, albeit core instrument, to the customer instead of selling a demo instrument.

JOELLE CRISTOFANI : He told me that it was a system coming from customer iBET. But this system would go back to Sweden, they checked every essential pieces. It is like a qualification of the systems or review of all internal essential parts.

DODI: This refurbished Biacore™ system was just as good as a new system.

JOELLE CRISTOFANI : So, I go back to my customer, I explained the same thing to my customer. And it was better than the demo one because there was a guarantee, and this is a secure system. So, the price was interesting. So, we work together to guarantee a solution, and, in the end, we sold it the Biacore™ system for 3000.

DODI: And a lot of customers ask for refurbished instruments nowadays.

JOELLE CRISTOFANI : And that's why I continue to work in this way, because if I ever request from a customer, if I could propose a refresh system, I do it.

CONOR: So that was 10 years ago. How's it going today?

DODI: Today Cytiva has a team of seven working on remanufacturing instruments in the far north of Sweden in Umeå. And when we started, we refurbished 30 units, last year it was 120. We have just sold, like I said earlier, our 1,000th instrument.

CONOR: Okay, so we're making progress. More to do.

DODI: Absolutely. And you know, there's growing importance of sustainability in the industry. There's been this three-pillar approach focusing on the environment, on social issues, and governance. And a lot of times the pharmaceutical industry has been good in one area, but not all of them.

CONOR: And look, the industry does a huge amount of life saving good. But that doesn't mean it's exempt from focusing on social sustainability, environmental sustainability, and so on. So as an industry, we lag behind, we need to catch up because we are part of this global ecosystem.

DODI: Perfectly right. And on those three pillars, environment, social, governance and we've seen how customers are now combining their business objectives with sustainability goals.

CONOR: So refurbished instruments also increase access to what are actually really high-tech pieces of kit. So, students who may not otherwise be able to afford them can use them in their research.

DODI: Exactly. So, I reached out to one of our customers who buys refurbished instruments from us.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: So, we have the vision to provide biotech solutions for all over the world.

DODI: This is Cristina Peixoto.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: I've worked at iBET for a long time. iBET is a private nonprofit research organization in Portugal, indeed, is the largest one.

DODI: iBET in Portugal, has played a role in research on the Coronavirus, and its vaccines, of course.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: During the first lockdown, IBET was involved in purification of the spike protein to set up ELIZA test to detect the COVID antibodies.

DODI: While they were doing this work, they were also wanting to keep their other projects running because of their contracts with partners. But like the rest of us in the world there was lockdown during this pandemic. So, they turned to some of their older equipment from Cytiva to help out with their workload.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: And thanks to this we are able to purify these proteins. And now we have an agreement with one of our stakeholders, they are trying to put on the market these tests for COVID with success. And the meantime during all this last year. Some colleagues are also working on vaccines, virus-like particles for SARS cough.

CONOR: So, they use these instruments in the research labs, working on a COVID vaccine, and before it goes into the clinical phase.

DODI: That's right, Cristina says the research lab is not just for researchers, but also for students.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: So, we have this mission also of training new people, the new generation of the players in the manufacturing fields in the biotechnology field.

DODI: The refurbished equipment plays a huge part in their success of training students, because it helps students use top line equipment that they wouldn't normally be able to use.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: Without this programme, we are not able to achieve the track record that we have today in this field. So, it's really important that Cytiva and this programme, mainly in countries that cannot afford such expensive equipment, whatever equipment is available allows us to teach the students from scratch from all the students behind the chromatography and allows us to training the students to publish scientific journals in peer review system. So was really important for us.

CONOR: More refurbished instrument means more science.

DODI: That's right.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: And they complain, ''why we have to use this all and you have so nice equipment for other type of projects?'' But I think it's important for them to understand that they are still working properly. They have good reproducible data even after 20 years of working. So why not use because it's not so fancy? That doesn't make sense.

CONOR: So, I guess that's the refuse in the five R's.

DODI: Ah, that is the refuse.

CRISTINA PEIXOTO: I think the sustainability it's more and more important, of course, that 20 years ago it was a matter of the cost. But nowadays is also important for us.

DODI: So, sustainability touches everyone, we're trying to get to all parts of the supply chain involved from manufacturing to customers and to the users. So, Tom Szaky, from TerraCycle has one last request for all of us.

TOM SZAKY: So please, you know, I think my biggest request is beyond the sort of obvious of, you know, the excitement of getting this platform launched and working, teach us and push us on how we can make sure it is as valuable for every aspect of your business as absolutely possible. Because that's what we really want to hear. So that we can really invest and develop that capability for you. Then to me, the sky's the limit on what else can we do, how broad and how robust can we make this? How can we not just celebrate that syringe filters are now recyclable, but recycled at scale? And I think that will be something that I'm personally incredibly grateful for because it'll manifest in so many incremental ways that we can help the world become more sustainable.

DODI: Alright Conor, do you remember the five R's?

CONOR: I do and it's six: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, refurbish, and rate us where you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.

DODI: Right on! Thank you. Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin. Discovery Matters is produced in collaboration with Soundtelling. Production, Tanvir Mansur. Our theme song was written by Thomas Henley. Additional music is from Epidemic Sound.

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