August 22, 2018

6 Min Read
5 ways healthcare packaging lines can be more sustainable

Tom Egan

Life science companies look to utility savings, collaborative product development and serialization to boost their sustainability contributions.

An aging world population and improved healthcare availability in emerging markets are driving demand in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries while creating new norms throughout the marketplace. As a result, manufacturers must cater to the need for a greater variety of pharmaceutical products.

This can require changes to production that conflict with sustainability objectives. Notably, a shift toward smaller batch runs that enables product diversity but requires more frequent changeovers can create significant obstacles to companies looking to reduce energy consumption and overall environmental impact.

Additionally, advancements in drug delivery add to this variety. Accurate dosing is of the utmost importance, so when patients and consumers achieve better results with different formats—such as injectables, transdermal patches or nasal sprays—companies have strong incentives to offer those other delivery mechanisms.

The resulting challenge to the industry is accommodating ever more demanding production schedules and product and package variety in as sustainable a way as possible. To do that, healthcare product manufacturers must implement packaging solutions that minimize the environmental impact of expanding product portfolios, build sustainability practices into the development of new delivery systems, seek utility savings in new automation strategies and leverage serialization.

While this is a tall order, companies can get a handle on it by exploring the latest sustainable solutions at Healthcare Packaging Expo, which is co-located with Pack Expo Intl., (Oct. 14-17, 2018; McCormick Place, Chicago).

And here are five tips on how manufacturers of medical devices and pharmaceutical products can make their packaging operations more sustainable and efficient.

1. Put functionality first

In a sustainability strategy, it is important to remember that any packaging that falls short of serving its purpose is never sustainable—no matter the material reduction, recyclability or use of recycled materials. In the healthcare market, the patients’ needs are the most important considerations. The goal is to achieve a safe delivery to the patient along with all necessary components and instructions for an effective application.

Packaging operations of life sciences companies must balance the most important elements: the patient, efficacy and sterility.

For example, a pain relief product must maintain its promised levels of effectiveness while that drug travels throughout the supply chain. Failure of the packaging to protect against elements like light and air that could jeopardize product effectiveness is not characteristic of a sustainable solution.


Neither is any packaging that fails to protect the product or pharmaceutical industry workers against contaminants. Lightweighting blister pack materials, for example, may leave healthcare workers handling the product vulnerable to contamination. Such was the case with dutasteride, which contaminated both the inside and outside of Avolve capsule blister packs, and cyclophosphamide (CP), an anti-tumor drug with dangerous contaminants. Therefore, manufacturers must look to other areas where savings are possible.

Plausible strides can be made with machinery technology. More efficient sealing, for example, has the potential to reduce material usage and waste. However, given the tight parameters enforced by the regulators, it can be a challenging balance to achieve.

Packaging also plays an essential role in providing the track-and-trace and authentication measures that guard against counterfeiters and tampering. Packaging that cannot support these functions is no longer part of a sustainability-enhancing strategy and only contributes to fully costed waste.

2. Build waste reduction into product development

Though the high efficacy, sterility and safety standards of the pharmaceutical and medical device industries provide some barriers to traditional avenues of material savings, these two sectors have seen a rise in collaborative problem solving to drive innovation in many areas, including sustainability.

Combining pharmaceutical products with medical device delivery systems means overall products become simpler and more convenient, ultimately requiring less packaging. An example of this collaboration in action is the work carried out by both pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers in creating implantable devices that also deliver drugs. And pill bottles can now be equipped with digital timestamp readouts that remind patients to take their medication, and are able to be monitored remotely by a doctor to ensure patients are taking their correct dosages.

As healthcare treatments continue to become more complex, the pharmaceutical and medical device industries will continue to merge their technologies and expertise to deliver patient solutions that combine both pharmaceuticals and medical devices into one simple and convenient product—ultimately presenting opportunities to become more sustainable through consolidation.

The approach is a win-win, enabling innovation to address better patient compliance, to use unique drug delivery methods, and to improve package integrity and product safety.

3. Invest in energy- and utility-saving solutions

Medication for patients is becoming more personalized and specific. As a result, the concept of million-bottle runs for a particular dosage is becoming a thing of the past for many companies.

To meet the demand for more personalized products—driven largely by the decline of blockbuster drugs, the explosion of biologics and the growing use of generics—so-called micro runs are now commonplace. These require lines to be stopped often for small tweaks, such as for more tablets or different dosages. And during that time the lights are on, the line is operational but not producing. The additional energy required for all of that changeover presents a challenge on the sustainability front, prompting manufacturers to re-evaluate their operations for opportunities to gain back efficiencies, energy and utility savings.

Pharmaceutical companies work tirelessly to reduce the amount of power, air or water used on a line. For example, reducing the amount of heat used to shrink a lid is sustainable, as is looking at ways to reduce water consumption, or to optimize utility usage such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). Some are also giving serious consideration to clean energy technologies, such as solar, wind or power generated by biofuels, which is a huge step forward for sustainability.

4. Achieve sustainability through serialization

A new need that can be related to sustainability is serialization. The serialization of pharmaceutical products has been mandated for six years now and asks that pharmaceutical products are tracked from their point of manufacture, to when they reach the patient.

Where serialization is concerned, manufacturers need to make sure the information used to track products is readable throughout the supply chain—including human-readable codes. The package therefore needs to be big enough to carry that information.

Where sustainability enters the equation is that serialization provides a much better insight to the manufacturer as to a product’s location and eventual distribution. This allows them to create the correct number of products, which saves on production and therefore elements such as material and energy usage and even distribution.

While it is not designed to be more sustainable, serialization increases supply chain visibility and therefore adds to the overall control and sustainability of a product.

5. Share ideas and experiences

For pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers, sustainability will always be a challenging area to address, but a multifaceted approach can provide the most effective results.

Operating amid a strict regulatory environment that governs patient safety and product effectiveness, these companies must often look beyond the more traditional paths to achieving strides in environmental responsibility. Through collaboration, innovation and thoroughly evaluating existing operations and practices, life science companies can implement sustainable initiatives with impact.

And, importantly, pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers can lean on the suppliers of packaging equipment as well as materials and containers to support their mission.

Tom Egan is vp, industry services, for PMMI, The Assn. for Packaging and Processing Technologies. PMMI represents more than 800 North American manufacturers and suppliers of equipment, components and materials, as well as providers of related equipment and services to the packaging and processing industry. It works to advance industries by connecting consumer goods companies with manufacturing solutions through the world-class PACK EXPO trade shows.

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