Sustainable packaging reaches pharmaceuticals and medical devices

Daphne Allen

December 15, 2015

30 Min Read
Sustainable packaging reaches pharmaceuticals and medical devices

Manufacturers are concerned about their environmental effects and are making efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Rising energy and resin costs may make these eco-friendly steps particularly appealing because of their cost efficiency.

In packaging, the term sustainability emerged after Lee Scott of low-cost-leader Wal-Mart mentioned it in a 2005 speech. Ever since, the term has linked environmentally friendly practices with business efficiency.

In 2007, many exhibitors at Pack Expo Las Vegas touted sustainable packaging initiatives. Plans for Pack Expo International 2008 seem similar. The event’s keynote, “More Safety versus Less Material? Where Does Packaging Go?” will be given by Betsy Cohen, vice president of sustainability at Nestlé. Says Ben Miyares, Pack Expo conference director: “Sustainability and the environment are at the forefront of global debate. With increasing legislation and pressure for environmentally friendly packaging, the challenge becomes understanding what sustainability means for your company and how to start applying its principles to your business.”

What could sustainability possibly mean for the business of pharmaceutical and medical device packaging? FDA-regulated products demand materials traceability and consistency. They often undergo rigorous sterilization or aseptic processing and need the highest barrier to protect sensitive products. Safety and efficacy come first, not environmental friendliness.

Nonetheless, we hear from our readers that sustainability is becoming a key corporate initiative. “Sustainability is a huge issue for companies today, [even for] pharmaceutical companies,” says one packaging professional for a major manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and nutritional products. “It makes good business sense. Our industry has a few more restrictions than those with easier-to-package products. But we can work toward more-sustainable options.”

Some are also considering ways to meet Wal-Mart’s mandate for packaging reductions. “Pharmaceutical companies are less impacted by Wal-Mart’s sustainability targets,” says Michael Hoard, director of marketing and business development for the tube business unit of Alcan Packaging. However, “pharmaceutical companies are very interested in sustainability. They are, perhaps, not as vocal with packaging companies when compared to personal care and cosmetic marketers that vie for consumers’ purchases.”

Sustainable-packaging initiatives could serve more than the environment. In today’s economy, revisiting packaging may be necessary given the rising price of oil and therefore resin and energy. Companies are looking at ways of running leaner and more-efficient packaging operations.

“Sustainability processes are definitely a key driver for the success of any organization,” says Michael Rubenstein, chief growth and innovation officer for member Alcan Packaging. “A sustainable organization will maximize sustainable, profitable growth and operate a responsible, innovative, and advanced sustainability agenda.”

Sustainability could therefore mean several things to healthcare product packagers—not necessarily recycled-content or recyclable materials, but perhaps lean manufacturing, weight and waste reductions, and more-efficient energy-saving packaging lines.

In 2005, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), an industry working group that is a project of the nonprofit institute GreenBlue, defined sustainable packaging as a system that:

• Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle. 
• Meets market criteria for performance and cost. 
• Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy. 
• Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials. 
• Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices. 
• Is made from materials healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios. 
• Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy. 
• Is effectively recovered and utilized in biological and/or industrial cradle-to-cradle cycles.

Anne Johnson, SPC’s director, says that it is important to think of sustainability in terms of a system rather than of a product. “Is a tree on its own sustainable? No. It is, though, when you examine how it fits into its environment. The same goes for a product. In terms of packaging, it is important to see how a particular material flows through the economy. Just because you are using a renewable material doesn’t mean that it is a sustainable material. Paper may not be sustainable if you are cutting down forests and ruining an ecosystem.”

Johnson admits that some industries have greater opportunities than others to use sustainable packaging. In pharmaceutical and medical device packaging, “recycled-content use is limited,” she says. “With regulations governing what manufacturers can do on the front end, these companies may want to consider what they can do on the back end by looking at the life cycle of packaging. A package’s end of life could be a positive place.”

Healthcare products companies as well as packaging suppliers are currently SPC members. For instance, Abbott Labs, Church & Dwight Co., and Johnson & Johnson are members, as are Alcan Packaging, Amcor, MeadWestvaco, Klöckner Pentaplast, and other key suppliers. (For a complete list and more details,

Johnson points out that this year’s DuPont Awards for Packaging Innovation (now in their 20th year) focused in part on sustainability. “DuPont added a special emphasis on sustainability . . . in order to raise the visibility of initiatives for enhanced performance, resource and energy efficiency, responsible sourcing, effective recovery, and other innovation factors leading to sustainable packaging,” explained William F. Weber, vice president, DuPont Packaging, in a press release. “This is in line with DuPont’s corporate commitment to support reducing the environmental footprint in the value chains where we participate.” 
Sustainable-packaging efforts are also honored in the Ameristar awards program through the Institute of Packaging Professionals and the Worldstar awards program through the World Packaging Organisation. Both feature sustainable-packaging awards. In addition, pharmaceutical and medical device category winners have emphasized reductions or other steps that convey interest in sustainability.

Wyeth’s ClickCase tablet dispenser, a 2007 winner in the pharmaceutical and drug category, was designed with an eye on sustainability. Jim Powers, senior director, pharmaceuticals team, global packaging services, says that patient compliance and product differentiation were key goals, but so was sustainability. Wyeth chose polypropylene for the case because it is so easily recyclable.

“For those of us with extensive product lines, we are always looking toward sustainability,” says Powers. “Our first goal is product integrity and stability. But if we can eliminate waste streams, we look at doing so. One of the reasons we didn’t mix plastics was so we could encourage recycling.”

In another winner’s case, a package change yielded cost and material savings. At HealthPack 2008, Robert Argentero from Gettinge Group explained efforts to take cost out of a double-barrier package for collagen-coated fabric for grafts. “We converted from a double-tray system to a double-pouch system with a clear die-cut PETG insert. The goal was to take cost out without compromising performance,” he told the HealthPack audience. “There are green advantages to using inserts—they require lower energy to form and less energy to seal packages, offer less shipping volumes, and generate less hospital waste.” The package won a 2006 Ameristar award in the medical device category.

SPC founding member MWV Healthcare Packaging supports the organization’s goal of improving environmental performance at every link in the packaging supply chain, says Tom Grinnan, director of business development and marketing. “For the healthcare industry, sustainability is an increasingly important consideration when designing product packaging solutions that are patient health-centric. It requires an approach to sustainability from both the environmental and social perspectives. At MWV, we ensure the package’s design and delivery systems are effective and safe; that the material used in the package is sourced responsibly; and that the packaging is manufactured and transported efficiently, reducing the carbon footprint in these important steps in the supply chain.”

Fellow members add that economic sustainability is part of the picture, too. Amcor Flexibles believes that, “as well as being the right thing to do for our future, it’s essential that we continue to exceed the expectations of our customers, investors, and regulators when managing our emissions, our waste, and our water use, ” says Todd Hurd, vice president of sales and marketing.

Reynolds Packaging Group (Richmond, VA) defines sustainability as using “our values to build financial success, environmental excellence, and social responsibility through partnerships in order to deliver net long-term benefits to our shareowners, employees, customers, suppliers, and the communities in which we operate,” reports Bill Sharpless, global market director for pharmaceutical, medical, cosmetic, and retail packaging.

Reynolds has developed a materials flow analysis along with the International Aluminum Institute to better understand the global flow of aluminum production, aluminum flows and inventories in customer and consumer products, and recycling loops. “This material flow analysis is also being used to quantify and better understand the industry’s current and future environmental aspects and improvement opportunities,” says Sharpless. “We believe there is economic as well as stewardship justification for minimizing material flows.”

Alcan, too, cites the triple-bottom- line life-cycle approach: environmental, social, and economic factors. “Economic criteria include metrics in corporate accountability, transparency, corporate governance, and economic performance. Social criteria include programs in local economic development, working conditions, safety, diversity, and human rights. Environmental criteria include the traditional reduction and recycling drivers along with metrics for energy, transportation, water, and waste,” explains Rubenstein.

“Sustainability is not one material or one polymer,” explains Daniel Stagnaro, Klöckner Pentaplast’s business manager of pharmaceutical films for the Americas. “It is about efficiency, energy, required manpower, transportation—all the elements that make a company more profitable. At Klöckner we review every process that we have to ensure that they are better, faster, easier, friendlier. That is the way toward sustainability.”

Healthcare providers and payers are struggling to contain or reduce costs, and they are looking at all possibilities. One area is waste management. “The nation’s hospitals generate approximately 6600 tons of waste per day,” reports Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E). The group was jointly founded by the American Hospital Association, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Health Care Without Harm, and the American Nurses Association. Much of this waste—80 to 85%—is non-hazardous solid waste, such as paper, cardboard, metal, glass, and plastics, H2E claims.

The group suggests reducing waste generation and disposal. “Often, the easiest and most effective way to do so is through source reduction and environmental preferable purchasing—reducing the volume of materials that come into the facility. This can be achieved by requiring vendors to reduce packaging or using durable packaging [such as plastic totes] that can be repeatedly reused,” shares H2E.

In 2007, H2E honored St. John’s Riverside Hospital, part of the Riverside Health Care System, with a “Partner for Change” award. Among several steps, the hospital encouraged vendors to reduce packaging on medical and nonmedical products. Premier cites the St. John’s Riverside Hospital story among its case histories on reducing costs.

Jerry Hirsh, marketing manager for Multivac (Kansas City, MO), says that medical device manufacturers are feeling some pressure as hospital inventory managers ask for such packaging changes.

One of the strategies of The American Society for Healthcare Environmental Services (ASHES) is to potentially work with pharmaceutical companies to reduce packaging, reports Patti Costello.

Payers are also putting tremendous cost pressures on manufacturers, says Scott Hanson of Eastman Chemical (Kingsport, TN). “Pressures from healthcare payers are encouraging medical device manufacturers to be cost efficient,” says Hanson. “Manufacturers, therefore, are looking for ways to take costs out and optimize processes for efficiency. They are looking for ways to design products better from the beginning.” Eastman has developed information on the use of copolyesters for rigid medical packaging to help firms meet ISO 11607 more efficiently. “ISO 11607 allows a medical device manufacturer to test the worst-case package/device combination and to use those results for an entire family of products,” he says.

Some readers tell us that they are looking at sustainability because of Wal-Mart’s packaging scorecard. According to Wal-Mart’s Web site, use of the scorecard will help Wal-Mart reduce “packaging across its global supply chain by 5% by 2013.” 

Seven Rs guide the scorecard, Wal-Mart reports: remove, reduce, reuse, recycle, renew, revenue, and read. Scorecard metrics are as follows:

• 15% will be based on GHG / CO2 per ton of production. 
• 15% will be based on material value. 
• 15% will be based on product/
package ratio. 
• 15% will be based on cube utilization. 
• 10% will be based on transportation. 
• 10% will be based on recycled content. 
• 10% will be based on recovery value. 
• 5% will be based on renewable energy. 
• 5% will be based on innovation.

Christi Davis Gallagher, senior communications manager for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., offers an update. “Throughout 2007, our suppliers were given the opportunity to input and track data, learn about the scorecard, and work with buyers to start thinking about sustainable packaging solutions. Any information gathered this past year was not considered official data. Starting February 1, we will officially start tracking the data, which our buyers will be able to use to make more-informed purchasing decisions. As we move forward with the development of the scorecard and data collection, we will be able to more accurately measure our progress toward our goal to reduce packaging in our supply chain by 5% by 2013.” She adds that Wal-Mart is looking at data from all suppliers.

The challenge lies in determining just which Rs pharmaceutical and medical device packagers can follow to achieve these metrics. Most activity involves reduction of some sort.

Rubenstein says that Alcan Packaging has developed a life cycle analysis tool (ASSET) to evaluate packaging, the product footprint, and the impact of consumer use on the sustainable footprint of the product. “It is critical to evaluate packaging in a life cycle context. One of the main areas of evolving understanding in sustainability is in the area of unintended consequences. If we take bioplastics as an example, while they are renewable, many of the bioplastic options are made from corn. Due in part to the increased demand for corn in the production of biofuel, the price of corn has doubled and continues to rise. Producing corn requires large amounts of energy and water. In consequence, if you look at the entire footprint of a package made with bioplastics, it is not necessarily more sustainable than one made with petroleum plastics.”

Reducing material consumption is where some companies start. Johnson & Johnson has been minimizing packaging use for more than 10 years, claims the company’s 2007 sustainability report. “We have made strides to reduce the size of our packaging [and] the weight of our packaging.”

Others are, too. “We have to use less material,” says one healthcare products packaging professional. “We are looking at product life cycles in terms of solid waste as well as energy and emissions.”

Alcan’s Hoard and his team work to support such requests. “Generally, we are working on reducing the weight of plastics used. However, we are also in discussions with a few pharma firms on other new sustainable developments.”

Packaging industries have been reducing costs for years through efforts to downgauge films, eliminate overpackaging, and reduce weight. As material compositions and formulations evolve, engineers are often able to get comparable or even improved strength and barrier properties out of thinner or lighter materials. Rigid packaging has turned flexible, and extended-content labeling has often cut out secondary cartons.

These business-minded measures play into sustainability. “Sustainability is very closely aligned to managing costs,” says Johnson. “In this era of high energy and material costs, you learn a lot about being efficient.”

Rory Wolf believes that sustainability needs to be a focus in the pharmaceutical and medical device packaging industries. “For these industries in particular, building in sustainability means reducing the amount of material or energy used, decreasing waste, and minimizing air emissions,” says Wolf, who serves as vice president of business development and technology manager of atmospheric plasma and flame systems for Enercon Industries Corp. (Menomonee Falls, WI). The firm provides surface treatment, induction cap sealing, and power supply technologies. “It is more important than ever for OEMs and converters to consider the materials that go into products. Material selection is an integral part of the total product life cycle and the move toward sustainability. Using renewable resources, downgauging, and reducing emissions are key sustainability initiatives underway in these industries.”

Wolf is chairing a workshop on sustainability at the TAPPI PLACE (Polymers, Laminations, Adhesives, Coatings, and Extrusions) Conference on September 16 in Portsmouth, VA. TAPPI is an association that serves the worldwide pulp, paper, packaging, and converting industries.

Josephine Lee, director of marketing, Pregis Corp., Protective Packaging North America, says that when her company started reviewing sustainability, “we realized that packaging is a component of a larger picture. It encompasses all aspects of the life cycle, including raw material sourcing, product manufacture, transportation, and end-use disposal. We found, through processes already in place, that we were already actively engaged in source reduction, waste minimization, recycling, and resource conservation.”

Manufacturers are asking about sustainability in their “requests for information,” reports Narendra Srivatsa, director of packaging solutions for Cortegra (Fairfield, NJ). “Many pharma companies are in a wait-and-watch mode, but running a lean process is clearly key to them. Companies want to know how we are using less to make more.” Initiatives at Cortegra include upgrading manufacturing equipment to reduce scrap rates and maintain operational excellence, he adds.

Regardless of their industry, Multivac’s customers have been trying to reduce waste on their packaging lines as much as possible, reports Hirsh. “Every major corporation is looking to maximize their film utilization during thermoforming. It is smart business. Their goal is a secure reliable package with lower costs.” Such material conservation is a move toward sustainability, he adds.

Hirsh says that downgauging film gauge is common, as are material changes, but such moves vary from case to case. “It may make sense to revalidate, particularly if a material or supplier contract is ending,” he explains. But running a more sustainable packaging line may in fact just involve “using the same film, but using it smarter, with less waste,” he says.
“High-performance materials are needed for downgauging,” adds Hanson, “which can help with source reduction.” Eastman copolyester has been used in thin-film trays, he adds.

Several companies have already been asking IMA to “decrease the total quantity of packaging materials,” says Agostino Consolini, marketing director for IMA Safe Packaging Solutions. “Sustainability has been part of the activities of the IMA Group for quite some time now.” IMA has been training service managers to help companies optimize packaging processes, increase production efficiency, and reduce packaging waste.

Printer and contract packager Howell Packaging (Elmira, NY) has a scrap-handling program in its paperboard conversion operation that Joe Lally, marketing manager, packaging for pharmaceuticals, calls “extremely efficient and effective in capturing all paperboard waste.” He adds that the by-product provides the necessary base material for the production of many recycled grades of paperboard. “Since Howell Packaging is also a contract packager, we naturally look toward achieving efficiencies in assembly operations that directly support sustainability goals by reducing waste and energy consumption,” Lally says.
Hospira has a number of initiatives to reduce packaging waste. For instance, Hospira developed its VisIV container using a polyolefin material instead of PVC, which enabled the company to eliminate an overwrap because of the increase in barrier properties. “If the whole market moved to it, we estimate that 20 million pounds of plastic could be saved each year,” says Robert Felicelli, vice president and general manager of specialty pharmaceuticals for the Americas.

Printing in-line could help companies reduce inventory waste, as they print only what they need, says Jim Umbdenstock, president of Griffin-Rutgers Inc. (Ronkonkoma, NY). “Customers may not have been calling this a sustainability measure, but moving away from preprinted materials means wasting less material.” He points out that in-line printing is not a new trend. 
Joseph Buono, sales manager of CSAT America LLC (Louisville, CO), says that “as you print all of your information on the fly, you eliminate the need for preprinted materials that become out of date or subject to change. Only virgin materials are stored and used just in time.” CSAT’s digital printing systems use recyclable consumables and nontoxic toners.

Peter Buczynsky sees a tremendous amount of waste generated when changing packaging lines from one format to another. “Oftentimes, a thermoforming line runs for extended periods of time while an operator or mechanic attempts to get all of the stations set up properly and aligned to produce an acceptable package,” says Buczynsky, president of Micron PharmaWorks Inc. (Odessa, FL). In addition, “waste is generated when qualifying and testing vision systems during format setup or switches,” he says. “Here again, the machines are cycled for extended cycles in order to verify that product is properly rejected. Usually this means that hundreds of pounds of material (PVC, Aclar, aluminum, etc.) are sealed to each other, leading to additional difficulties in recycling.”

Micron PharmaWorks uses Scanware vision systems, which offer a new in-process control feature. “This dramatically reduces the entire qualifying procedure, allowing multiple qualification or reject tests to be performed simultaneously rather than individually,” Buczynsky explains. “The system generates a report afterwards, indicating details of the test. This dramatically reduces the typical scrap generated between the vision system and reject station for each product to be tested. And you can imagine the number of combinations of tests that need to be performed on sensitive product setups.”

Grinnan of MWV Healthcare says that “well-designed packaging should be easily implemented into existing equipment, maximizing efficiencies wherever possible. At MWV, packages are designed to run easily on most existing line equipment so manufacturers can maintain efficient, speedy, and economical processing on production lines.”
Packagers would also welcome machinery developments that improve speed. “We need to keep our lines moving,” says one packager, whose company makes pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and nutritional products. “We are looking to use less material, so we need better line speeds and forming processes for thin films. We are also looking for deeper draws, and we need more-uniform finished containers at high speeds.”

This packager says he would love to switch some products to pouches instead of bottles, but cannot achieve the speeds he wants without increasing costs.

Reducing weight is another sustainability consideration, says Stagnaro of Klöckner Pentaplast. “When comparing materials, there are rarely clear-cut winners. You are rarely going to find one across the board that is the best. Some materials require a lot of water, others use more energy or generate more greenhouse gas emissions, for instance. You also may be comparing a lightweight nonrecyclable material with a heavyweight recyclable one. An excellent rule of thumb is to consider the package-to-product weight ratio.”

“Companies can choose smaller and lighter shipper designs to save transport costs, and they can also generate less waste,” reports Bill Hingle, marketing manager for TCP Reliable (Edison, NJ). “With the proper design, they can use less foam and fewer gel packs.” To calculate the real savings, Hingle says that companies need to look at total transportation costs.

For instance, Hingle compares his company’s Timesaver 72-hour shipper with Phase 5 cooling units with its Timesaver 24-hour shipper. “The 72-hour shipper has twice the capacity and three times the temperature control time, yet it is only slightly heavier: 34 lb compared with the 25-lb 24-hour shipper. You can ship more and avoid paying for expedited delivery.”
TCP’s Phase 5 is filled with a material that undergoes phase change at 5°C. “Because it can hold 5°C longer than a conventional phase-change material (which undergoes phase change at 0°C, and has very little heat capacity at 5°C), significantly less material is required,” reads the company Web site. Because products can come in contact with Phase 5 without freezing, no dunnage or air gaps are needed, so shippers can be compact.

Grinnan says products are often packaged in excessive tertiary materials for shipping. “Often [these materials] fail to protect product, resulting in damaged goods or the need to repackage. MWV works with firms to reengineer packaging to be more efficient and lighter weight and to provide excellent performance to protect product. The result is a reduction in materials and the ability to ship more per load, contributing to an overall lighter carbon footprint.”

Lee says that Pregis is focusing on logistics and shipping improvements. “Company experts have timed production and reconfigured shipping routes to minimize the number of trucks on the road and distances travelled. Further, cube utilization has been maximized to help curb rising transportation costs. In 2007, compared to 2006, Pregis consumed 93,000 fewer gallons of diesel fuel, thereby reducing CO2 emissions by 2.1 million pounds.” In July, Pregis launched Astro-Bubble Green, an first-ever air-cushioning bubble material containing up to 40% recycled content, but no less than 30% (depending on content availability).
Other suppliers say that some packaging formats may save shipping space and weight on their way to manufacturers or other supply-chain partners. Shipping rolls of film requires less fuel and space during transport than does transporting formed yet unfinished or filled packages, says Hirsh from Multivac.

Similarly, Grinnan from MWV says that “prefilled blister packages stack, store, and can be shipped more efficiently than traditional amber vials.”

“In order to be sustainable, we need a deep understanding of our customers’ needs so that together we can find the right solution,” says Sharpless of Reynolds. Right could mean “a packaging solution that enhances source reduction through lightweighting or rightgauging, a packaging solution that improves barrier and protection properties so other packaging components can be modified, a flexible packaging solution that relies less on fossil fuel, or packaging solutions that are biodegradable or manufactured from renewable resources.” Sharpless points out that Reynolds’s two-ply lidding specification, Safety-Pak Plus, removes a layer of material and provides greater functionality versus the typical industry 3-ply product.

Reuse may be on some companies’ sustainability checklists. This year, the Reusable Pallet & Container Coalition (RPCC) renamed its efforts by becoming the Reusable Packaging Association (RPA). According to the RPA, reusable packaging is “the preferred solution for moving, storing, and handling product throughout the entire supply chain.”

To reduce the percentage of packaging material and the waste it generates, Schreiner MediPharm (Blauvelt, NY) and its parent company, Schreiner Group, increasingly use returnable packaging for shipping products.

TCP Reliable is evaluating the feasibility of reconditioning customer shipping containers for reuse, reports Hingle. “It can be viable for packaging to be reused as part of a closed-loop system,” he says. “In addition, clients are exploring other types of reuse to keep overall packaging costs down, but they must assess total economic costs. Reuse can offset other costs like disposal. But then the feasibility of paying for the transport of used, empty containers must be considered.”

Reuse efforts may entail utilizing existing machinery and upgrading it to run more efficiently. “Existing machinery [can] be enhanced to dramatically increase efficiency and flexibility while simultaneously reducing overall waste,” says Buczynsky. Micron PharmaWorks will be showing new developments in this area at Pack Expo.

For instance, “almost all of the thermoformers that leave the Micron PharmaWorks facility—either new or rebuilt thermoformers—employ rotary servo indexing technology, which ensures accurate compensation for material shrinkage,” he continues. “Without this technology, many blisters are rejected owing to sealing overloads and misregistration. ”

Efficiencies can reduce energy consumption. But so can energy reuse. Hirsh reports that Multivac has devised a way to recirculate steam back into its tunnel machinery used for shrink films. “Steam used to vent into the room and heat it up, requiring air conditioning for that room. We can now direct that steam back into the machine, resulting in an overall energy savings of up to 65%.”

The pharmaceutical and medical packaging industries are looking at alternatives to traditionally used materials for a variety of containers and components. Some companies are hoping to use less fossil fuel; others are trying to eliminate materials that may have—or are perceived to have—harmful environmental effects.

Replacing typically used materials isn’t easy. Alternatives may not offer the same performance and cost. In addition, given the safety and efficacy needs for pharmaceuticals and medical devices, manufacturers hesitate to experiment with new materials and processes that do not have a history of consistency and reliability.

In addition, if business needs for efficiency trump other efforts in company sustainability programs, new materials may struggle to gain the upper hand.

Nonetheless, some manufacturers are pushing ahead. Johnson & Johnson is working to remove PVC from its primary packaging.

Wal-Mart expressed some concerns about PVC a few years ago. When asked about its current position, Wal-Mart officials point packagers to the scorecard. Wal-Mart may be focusing on total packaging sustainability rather than on dictating material selection.

Because PVC forms and performs well at its cost point, eliminating it from pharmaceutical and medical device packaging may not support cost-efficiency efforts. In addition, point out some experts, PVC has a long history of safe use in packaging healthcare products, so why spend time and money to replace it? The Vinyl Institute reports 25% of all medical products containing plastic are made with vinyl.

PVC could have a lower carbon footprint. Made from salt and requiring less energy and resources to produce than other plastics, it may score favorably in terms of actual carbon used. There are concerns about potentially harmful chemicals that could be used or released during PVC manufacturing, disposal, or incineration. But supporters point out that dioxin levels have dropped even though PVC production has increased, and that many PVC formulations do not include often-feared phthalates. 
If sustainability programs expand in part because they offer cost efficiencies, cutting PVC may not prevail.

In general, technology suppliers are looking at material friendliness closely. “Schreiner’s product development process avoids the use of environmentally harmful substances,” reports a company spokesperson. “For raw, auxiliary, and operating materials, the company prefers suppliers that have put environmental management systems in place.” Schreiner MediPharm says that its “customers profit from the fact that we consider the environmental impact of our products during their entire life cycle—from development all the way to disposal. Schreiner enters its product data into the IMDS international material database, which provides customers with constant access to information on the chemical components of the products, allowing them to plan their waste disposal requirements accordingly.”

The high cost of petroleum is prompting Eastman to look at alternatives, like chemicals from coal, Hanson says. He adds that Eastman’s Tenite family of cellulose-based plastics have been around since 1929. “Interest in them fell off for a while, but is now coming back,” he says. Made from 100% renewable softwood materials, Tenite can be molded and extruded.

Howell Packaging has eliminated certain inks. “Many years ago we committed to the use of vegetable-based inks,” says Lally.
Even machinery construction is evolving. Arpac (Schiller Park, IL) swapped its traditional wet-paint finishing system with a powder-coating system. Greg Levy, director of marketing and distributor development, says the powder coating does not require a solvent to keep the binder and filler parts in a liquid suspension form. It emits zero or near zero volatile organic compounds, overspray can be recycled, and lines produce less hazardous waste than conventional liquid coatings.

New plastic products aim to offer manufacturers a range of alternatives. GLS Corp. (McHenry, IL), recently acquired by PolyOne Corp., debuted a new phthalate-free TPE in its Versaflex family. Versaflex CL E95 TPE offers high clarity and can be sterilized through autoclave. The company reports that it can be used for drug storage and delivery systems, bottles, containers, cosmetic applications, and infant care products. It can be extruded and blow molded.

NatureWorks LLC (Minneapolis) is working to suit its biopolymer polylactide (PLA) plastic for wider industrial applications. The company will be hosting a conference in September, “Innovation Takes Root,” that will cover advances in improving impact modification and thermal properties.

Marchesini Group is working with thermoforming machinery to run PLA. At Interpack 2008, the company displayed the Farcon FB220 mechanical thermoformer for processing Ingeo PLA from NatureWorks. Marchesini reports that the unit can produce a deep blister made of a single material (the lidding is 50-micron-thick PLA; the forming web can be 350 or more microns thick and 28 mm deep). The two are sealed together using pressure and heat instead of glue.

Cereplast Hybrid Resins offers the medical industry products for replacing traditional petroleum-based plastics with plastics combined with cereal products.

Spartech is developing a process to reduce the amount of material in rigid structures with minimal compromise to structural integrity, using traditional materials. “In theory, the materials wouldn’t change,” explains Jonathan Cage, packaging market manager. “For instance, we can extrude in a configuration that enables us to create a three-layer structure with reduced material in the core. You get similar performance, depending upon the depth of draw, and you could improve cycle times because less material requires less heat for forming. The result is a reduction in overall pounds with improved yield.” Cage says the process relies on inert gas, and full regrind of scrap can be put back into the structure. “We continue to refine melt-flow technology and thickness.”

Johnson & Johnson is working to increase the recyclability of its packaging, reads its 2007 sustainability report. “An ever-increasing number of our customers are making product choices based on less packaging and the recyclability of that packaging,” it reads.

Another healthcare product packager says that “we are in dire need of better materials. I don’t mean we need biopolymers—those are OK for labels and tamper-evident bands. Get us a recyclable plastic with the performance properties we need—high barriers and high temperature resistance. ”

Mark Mosher says that Koch Packaging Systems (Towaco, NJ) is seeing rising demand for recycled or recyclable materials for packaging consumer products, and such interest is creeping into healthcare from makers of syringes, sutures, and diagnostic medical devices. The company offers machinery for forming 100% paperboard packages with product viewing windows that can replace traditional hang cards with polymer blisters. Plastic can be run on the same machines when equipped with forming modules.

Better Packages has encouraged the use of recyclable materials for decades. Recently joining the SPC, the 90-plus-year-old company’s water-activated paper tape, BetterSeal Secure Tape, has always been made primarily from paper and plant-based starch. Reinforced paper tape, which contains fiberglass reinforcements, can be recycled in corrugated recycling, says Phil White, president and CEO.

Srivatsa, whose previous work at International Paper involved putting high levels of recycled content into board, says that Cortegra has evaluated and validated recycled-content paperboard in its carton manufacturing. “Although we are offering it, the industry has not been quick to sign up for the eco-friendly alternatives.”

Cage from Spartech says he has heard industry pleas for a fully recyclable plastic, but he points out that it is “difficult to get the waste stream ideal, even for food. It becomes quite a complex matrix.” As far as using recyclate for new products, Cage reports that Spartech “includes recycled content as specified by customers, including in our PETG, but a lot of it is under our control, such as edge trim.” For recycling post-industrial material, “it has to be certified just to make it into our plants,” Cage says. There is increasing demand for a steady stream, especially for polyesters and styrenes. “Many customers provide regrind materials to be used in their structures,” he says.

The challenge in the future will be to keep costs down while improving the quality of healthcare, given widespread interest in patient safety and infection control, says Hanson. Sustainability is important, too, but performance is paramount in the medical industry.

Earth-friendly practices do have roles to play in business. Perhaps the more-business-minded term sustainability legitimized greenery. “The focus on packaging and the environment by major retailers such as Wal-Mart has provided a new momentum to the green movement,” says Howell’s Lally. “The sustainability movement seems to have enough traction to become a permanent factor in decision making when it comes to package design.”

Environmental protection activities at Schreiner cover all areas of the organization, says a company representative. “They are considered in the concept design of facilities, machinery and technologies, during product development, recycling and use of waste materials, and in the daily work flow of every employee. The environmental impact of all processes is regularly captured in an eco-balance sheet to analyze the impact and to take improvement actions based on the analysis.”

Schreiner’s production sites in Germany have been certified according to DIN EN ISO 14001 since 1997. The respective environmental management system has been put in place at its new U.S. site in Blauvelt.

Perhaps such vendor investment in sustainability will help the healthcare industry avoid what one analyst predicts for the beverage industry. The article “What If Gas Cost $10 a Gallon?” quotes Bill Wood, president of Mountaintop Economics and Research, as saying, “Small plastic bottles of water would disappear.”

If unit-of-use packages, such as those that serve the sterile disposable medical device industry or that support patient compliance programs, were to suddenly become unaffordable, the industries would face a crisis. Thankfully, packaging suppliers are investing in sustainability to prevent one. 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, materials, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 20 years. She has also presented on these topics in several webinars and conferences, most recently discussing design and engineering trends at IME West 2024 and leading an Industry ShopTalk discussion during the show on artificial intelligence.

Follow Daphne on X at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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