Ranking number one on a recent list of the top 1,000 most sustainable companies is a name you might not expect: Merck & Company, Inc., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. But when it comes to Merck and the environment, such recognition is the culmination of a wide range of efforts to lighten the company's impact on the planet.

Recipient of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Energy Star Sustained Excellence Award in 2009, Merck has embraced corporate social responsibility, which entails not just the promise to conduct business ethically and use its power as a pharmaceutical giant to expand access to health care around the world, but also to act on a comprehensive plan to protect the environment.

Merck started this plan with an overhaul of the energy consumption habits at its own headquarters in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. The company installed two major solar energy systems, generating enough power with seven acres of solar panels to avoid more than 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually – the equivalent of taking 400 cars off the road each year.

Solar panels are just the beginning. As part of its commitment to fight global warming, Merck has promised to reduce its company-wide global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 12 percent by the end of 2012 over 2004 levels. The company already exceeded a goal to reduce its energy demand by 25 percent by 2008 over 2004 levels, and slashed its water usage by 15 percent during the same period.

Utilizing free heating and cooling from re-circulating water systems played a role in this success, as did a study on water-related challenges in the regions in which Merck operates. In 2008 alone, Merck recycled or reused 1.8 billion gallons of water.

Recycling and reuse also helped Merck reduce both its demand for hazardous materials and its generation of hazardous waste. For example, recovered solvents made up one-third of the total solvents used in manufacturing in 2008. Merck recovers 29 percent of its hazardous waste for reuse, and burns another 26 percent for energy.

Merck is also working to reduce the amount of waste generated by its packaging. A new recycling program will recycle insulated containers used to ship vaccines. The company is also replacing PVC plastic with recyclable materials in the redesigned packaging for its Dr. Scholl's products, eliminating about 400,000 pounds of waste material every year.

Of course, the area in which Merck excels the most is in the social impacts of its pharmaceutical products. The company has been praised for its work with international groups in distributing vaccines for diseases such as rotavirus in the world's poorest countries. There's also the fact that Merck's U.S. Patient Assistance Program provided 27 million free prescriptions and vaccines between 2001 and 2008 to patients in need.

After merging with Schering-Plough in 2010, Merck announced that it would not be releasing a 2009-2010 corporate responsibility report. The company states that it wishes to focus on “building the foundations that will help us integrate corporate sustainability deeper into our business and position us to address critical social and environmental challenges.” The next report will be released in the fall of 2011.

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