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Innovations in the pharmaceutical packaging Industry to reduce the use of plastic

1st November 2019 | Jonathan Duffield

Innovations in the pharmaceutical packaging Industry to reduce the use of plastic

In recent years, the importance of sustainable packaging has grown enormously in order to counter the negative effects of climate change, environmental destruction and excessive plastic landfill. 

The damaging effect of plastic packaging upon the natural world has taken precedence in the western media for several years, being brought to the forefront of the collective public conscious by programmes such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. With the UK government predicting that plastic waste in the oceans will have trebled in the next decade, it’s understandable why the issue has become a priority for so many.

The high level of media attention on this topic has led to pressure from consumers for change from the world’s largest companies and impactful industries – and as we all know, the customer is always right, so they listened. 

The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, has heeded this call in recent years, taking important steps to reduce the amount of plastic packing used through technological and creative innovation.

Why is plastic packaging so prevalent in pharmaceuticals? 

Packaging is not simply an aesthetic when used for pharmaceutical purposes. It is functional, and often has to serve multiple purposes such as providing tamper evidence, protecting products from sunlight and extending their expiry dates. 

These complicated factors mean that sometimes it isn’t so easy to switch out plastic for a more sustainable material, say, recycled cardboard for example, as this material may not adequately protect the product. 

Plastic is also cheap, easy to manufacture and durable – making it the obvious choice for packaging. 

However, despite the difficulties involved in finding more sustainable alternatives, the pharmaceutical industry has made conscious steps over the past few years to try and reduce its impact upon the world, and meet customer demands. 

What changes have been made to reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging? 

The pharmaceutical industry has been progressively improving the sustainability of packaging through eco-conscious manufacturing methods and sustainable materials. 

By creating packaging in this way, the pharmaceutical industry is having a greater impact on reducing its carbon footprint than simply focusing on packaging that uses less plastic, as it is also using less impactful ways of producing the final product. 

Some of the world’s largest pharma corporations have committed to sustainability in packaging over the past few years. In particular, Merck, a multinational pharmaceutical company, have implemented the following: 

  • Using more cardboard instead of plastic
  • Reusing expanded polystyrene (EPS) boxes
  • Integrating stainless steel canisters in production

In doing this, Merck managed to recycle 2,738 metric tons of waste generated from the use of their products, including 1,218 metric tons in 2018 alone.

Eco-conscious manufacturing methods

To create a more sustainable packaging process, it is necessary to use a manufacturing method that is more sympathetic to the environmental cause; hence there has been a rise in the use of cutting edge manufacturing methods in the pharmaceutical industry.

One example can be seen in 3D printing techniques. 3D modelling means that pharmaceutical companies can trial and develop packing ideas in small volumes before landing on a workable product.  

This ensures a reduction in waste in the research and development stages of designing packaging, and makes the overall process of manufacturing far more sustainable in the long run. 

Manufacturing processes such as this contribute to a far more streamlined manufacturing experience, and a less impactful packaging process. 

Sustainable materials

Reducing the use of plastic in packaging, as well as the environmental impact of pharmaceutical packaging required the industry to look at sustainable alternatives. 

Sustainable materials are materials that can be sourced, harvested or created with minimal environmental impact, and may be more easily recycled and reused than plastic.

Some examples of more sustainable materials that can be used as packaging for pharmaceuticals include:

  • PE or PET made from sugarcane 
  • Post consumer regrind (PCR)
  • Biodegradable products
  • PLA (polylactic acid) 

The increased use of these materials in pharmaceutical packaging is further decreasing the impact of the industry upon the environment, which is ultimately a positive step towards a more sustainable world. 

In conclusion 

The pharmaceutical industry has heard the public cry for a reduction in plastic packaging, and has reacted accordingly. 

Through leveraging technological innovations in the packaging process, and utilising sustainable materials, the pharmaceutical industry is making promising steps in the right direction, while fuelling further innovation by placing large quantities of their budgets into these sustainable methods.

While being 100% plastic-free is a long way off, we strongly applaud the current efforts of the industry, and are excited to see what advancements are to come in this controversial area.