Pharmacist Sadik Al Hassan discusses why carbon neutrality matters and how pharmacies can work to minimise their carbon footprint.

What is a carbon footprint?

Everything that we make or service we provide in pharmacy has an impact on the environment around us, a footprint, from the greenhouse gases that are produced.

We can estimate the levels of greenhouse gases produced in a figure of the carbon footprint – which is usually per year – to allow us to measure and compare this impact.

Just looking at delivery of a medium-sized parcel by a courier gives us an average figure of just under 3.7kg (a figure derived from ASOS) of carbon produced from that one transaction. As a pharmacy if you send out 20 deliveries a day, five days a week to your patients then on average you are generating 19,000kg of carbon in a year, just in delivery.

Why does carbon neutrality matter?

We have long known about the links between the pollution around us and health conditions, with many such as asthma greatly worsened by higher pollution levels.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who died in February 2013, may now be the first person with their cause of death listed as ‘air-pollution’. Each year there is an estimated 30,000 people in the UK who die due to their long-term exposure to air-pollution and it is often thought of as an invisible killer.

In our very own GPhC standards for registered pharmacies, principle five talks about ‘the equipment and facilities used’ and that they safeguard the health of patients and the public. In pharmacy we can no longer bury our head in the sand about the cost of our premises, energy usage and transport arrangements on the health of the very public it is our duty to protect.

The very medicines we supply to our patients have a carbon cost that is estimated to be 55% greater than that of the entire car industry at 52 megatonnes (52,000,000,000kg) of CO2 – making it one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Carbon neutrality is the idea that we can calculate the carbon cost of the activity and via action result in no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, cancelling out the carbon footprint.

Stamping out our pharmacy carbon footprint

There are numerous activities and products in pharmacy that we can identify as carbon costs with a noticeable footprint – from delivery drivers to the EPS scripts we print.

One of the most controllable costs in the pharmacy is our energy usage, with the potential for lowering our energy bills too. We can choose to get our energy from renewable sources with a lower carbon footprint than other energy sources like wind and solar generation. The Carbon Trust estimates that a 20% cut in energy costs could be equivalent to a 5% increase in sales, which during a pandemic sounds like a win, especially since a retail business can spend 29% of its operating costs on energy supply.

The three easiest interventions to cut energy usage from cheapest to most expensive are:

  • Switching off unused equipment
  • Making sure equipment, such as lighting, heating, and fridges, is properly maintained.
  • Refurbishment to implement more energy efficient appliances or design.

Lowering our energy costs, using Green providers, and using equipment properly such as not over filling fridges, can help the environment around us. But we can also tackle our carbon production in other ways, such as offsetting it by investing in carbon negative activities that cut carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Of course, right now there is not a pot of money in the pharmacy contract to spend on planting trees, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up on the idea of offsetting carbon - as studies have shown that up to 80% of consumers would be willing to pay to offset their own carbon cost.

If we look at a UK Tree Planting project on Carbon Footprint Ltd as an example, each 85p to round up a prescription charge would offset just under 66kg of carbon. In England alone, if 80% of people picking up a prescription item offset each item at 85p it would offset over 4 megatonnes of CO2 each month.

The projects where the money is invested could also be in the area where the pharmacies are to help improve the environment in their communities, which would mean local investment in local health prevention leading to local benefits.

What now?

As a profession our GPhC standards clearly set out our duty relating to heath protection of the public, and that includes protection from the carbon cost of our professional activities themselves.

As professionals, we should look for ways in our practice to combat the health effects of climate change where we can and it seems a natural extension of this to offer a way for the public to protect themselves from environmental cost of climate change.