The big squeeze

As a global pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline has built its success on a foundation of high medical, health and safety standards. But it is also excelling at managing its environmental impacts. Tom Idle caught up with sustainability director Mark Rhodes to find out more

Pharmaceutical business GlaxoSmithKline is familiar to most. It is a sprawling business, manufacturing and distributing medicines and healthcare products in 45 countries, with marketing offices in 80. Making everything from toothpaste and ibuprofen, to mouthwash and asthma inhalers, it is second only to Pfizer in the medical and vaccine market.

What you might not know is that Glaxo is the manufacturer behind well known brands Ribena, Lucozade and Horlicks. What you might also be unaware of is the serious inroads the business has made in tackling some of the common environmental issues of retailers and manufacturers the world over. “When coca-cola brought out bottles that were 25% recycled plastic, it was splashed all over the newspapers,” says sustainability director of the nutritional healthcare division Mark Rhodes. “At that point, we had already reached 40% for our bottles, but we weren’t telling anybody.” The absence of communication is slowly being rectified.

What it is keen to tell everybody is that it has just launched a new bottle for its Ribena drink that is made of 100% recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET). In various steps over the years, the company has achieved 25%, 30%, then 40% recycled bottles.

But, as Rhodes explains, this latest introduction is a great achievement. “All this stuff about carrier bags containing 50% recycled plastic is a bit naff really. If we’re putting it in drinks bottles, there’s really little excuse elsewhere.”

Other tough targets Glaxo has set itself include reducing packaging weight by 25% and making 100% recyclable packs made from 50% recycled materials. All this by 2010. It sounds ambitious, but Rhodes would like to go even further. “We would go higher,” he says, “but the problem is that we can’t get enough recycled plastic.”

It’s a problem that ought to be addressed once the Closed Loop London recycling plant is opened in Edmonton next month. Another headache is the “squidgy” pouches that some Lucozade is sold in (the ones often squeezed by thirsty marathon runners).

They are currently not recyclable but, as Rhodes optimistically says, “we’ve got a couple of years to work out what to do”.

“It was originally about saving money,” he adds, talking about the recent innovation in packaging weight and recyclability. “But now it works out about the same price. It’s difficult for consumers to do the right thing; they want you to do it for them and make it easy. So, we’ve taken the hassle out for them. We are providing them with a 100% recycled bottle, so they don’t need to worry about it.

“But whether they will take a bottle of Ribena off the shelf rather than someone else’s squash [based on the nature of the packaging] remains to be seen.”

In the great scheme of things, you might think that dealing with packaging waste is environmental small change for a company the size of Glaxo (with all of its manufacturing, processing and distribution centres across the globe). But the soft drinks industry was one of the fastest-growing industries in 2007.

Ribena sells almost 120 million bottles a year. And a recent carbon footprint audit, carried out by Best Foot Forward, revealed packaging and ingredients to be the biggest environmental impact. And since 80% of the firm’s drinks sales are made on the go, and so rarely end up in the controlled, domestic recycling systems run by councils in the UK, waste in this particular business unit is an increasingly important issue.

One way in which the business is attempting to stem this problem, while sourcing the much-needed plastic to keep the whole system rolling, is by trialling reverse-vending machines. It currently has four in operation in various locations in the country, including the Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent.

The idea is that when customers finish the drink they’ve just purchased from a vending machine, they can use that very same vending machine as a recycling deposit-box. “The idea of the trials were to see whether the machine actually worked,” says Rhodes. And it’s good news because they do work, well. And the next stage for Glaxo is to work out a way of rolling them out cost-effectively, nationwide, perhaps in partnership with local authorities. Watch this space.

But it’s not just on packaging that Glaxo is showing innovation and leadership. By 2015, the company aims to reduce its energy consumption by 40% – no mean feat considering the 1.2M tonnes of direct emissions that its 80 factories are responsible for. It is spending £30M this year in the process. “A lot of this is quick wins – things like changing lighting in warehouses,” says Rhodes, rather modestly.

But a lot of it isn’t quick wins. A new CHP plant is being considered at the drinks plant in Coleford. And, at the headquarters in Brentford, the water from the nearby canal is being used to cool the IT server rooms – a hugely ambitious and innovative project, which is currently under construction.

GlaxoSmithKline is certainly a contributor to climate change, but it is equally a victim. The blackcurrants used for Ribena production are all sourced from the UK, and have been for the past 75 years. In fact, the British blackcurrant industry sells more than 90% of its fruit to Ribena. But the warming climate in Britain is having a serious effect on the farmers along the supply chain. “It started about six years ago with a farmer down in Gloucester whose father used to supply us back in the 1930s,” Rhodes begins. “And his yield was dropping. Blackcurrants need cold frosts in the winter because it helps them set the buds to grow the leaves and blackcurrants. But because of the mild winters, their yield has dropped and it’s the warming climate that is doing it.”

As a result, the Scottish Crop Research Institute is helping to identify new varieties of bush that will actually cope with milder winters and some of these are being trialled with farmers at the moment. “Climate change is biting our supply chain.”

It’s just another hurdle for the business to overcome. But it seems the nature of the business, so used to preparing itself for external scrutiny – whether in the guise of the Medicines Agency, or the Food Standards Agency, or health and safety regulators – is well prepared for any future challenges it comes across. But, as Rhodes reveals, Glaxo doesn’t have big environmental and sustainability teams. Instead, the responsibility gets devolved to management. “You shouldn’t look at sustainability as a separate project. And don’t come up with any new processes – just plug into your existing ones.” It is sound advice, which has served Glaxo well and will continue to do so in the future.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie