Packaging plays a central role in the pharmaceutical supply chain not only because it protects the product; it also plays a part in tracking and tracing batches, giving patients essential information about dosages and drug administration, and much more.

Given the huge size of the global pharmaceutical market, it is clear that there is a large volume of packaging produced each year by the industry, so it is a prime target for efforts to improve sustainability. With myriad industries discovering that sustainable practices can be good for business, there is a lot of experience upon which to draw for those pharmaceutical manufacturers keen to pursue more eco-friendly packaging solutions – otherwise known as eco-design – and plenty of opportunities to do so, even in a heavily regulated industry.

"I believe that eco-design should be viewed as an opportunity to address today’s environmental challenges, while being innovative and reducing costs at the same time," says David Daroux, director of HSE-DD (health, safety, environment and sustainable development) at French pharmaceutical company Biocodex. "The packaging is inseparable from the product and fulfils essential functions – it protects the product from external threats, guarantees its traceability and provides the right information to ensure the safety of the patient.

"Because of its importance, it is reasonable to question whether there is still more that can be done about the environmental impact of packaging. Improvements are indeed possible and an increasing number of companies are exploring eco-design. Despite many regulatory constraints, it is still possible to limit the environmental impact of packaging," he adds.

According to Daroux, the move towards more sustainable practices in the pharmaceutical sector need not be a revolution; it may stem simply from trying to do what is good for a business. Eco-design may, in fact, come quite naturally to some pharmaceutical companies.

"Many companies are involved in eco-design without even knowing it," he notes. "Today, the principles of eco-design and reduction of packaging at the source are integrated into many companies’ new product manufacturing plans from the very beginning. For any new drug that comes along, we are optimising the size of the sales unit for palletisation."

An industry embracing the environment

As in many countries throughout Europe, the pharmaceutical industry in France has taken a proactive stance towards eco-design, largely through Les entreprises du médicament (Leem), the country’s association of pharmaceutical companies. Daroux is the head of Leem’s permanent eco-design task force, which is bringing together best practice from across the industry.

Since 2009, Leem has been deeply involved in the Grenelle de l’environnement, which is a round-table, multiparty debate comprising representatives of national and local government along with industry participants. It provides a forum through which all parties may contribute on an equal footing to discussions about specific topics that affect all parties, and one of the key themes is sustainability. In addition, in order to extend and strengthen its environmental performance commitments, Leem has signed a new improvement agreement with the French minister of health and the environment, which covers the period between 2012 and 2014.

"Pharmaceutical companies just need to keep in mind two simple principles – reduce and recycle."

The current agenda includes work on the drug product life cycle, particularly research on minimising the environmental impact of packaging through eco-design. Daroux points out that eco-design can be introduced very early on in a project – for instance, during a new product launch – or as part of a continuous improvement system. Because of this, any discussion on upping sustainability should focus on improving packaging performance and innovation, while reducing environmental impact at every stage of product development and launch.

In 2010, Leem also worked with Adelphe, a company that manages household packaging for businesses selling packaged products in France, to produce an introductory guide to eco-design, and also formed the task force that Daroux now leads. Leem and Adelphe together published an eco-design guide to drug packaging, which remains an important point of reference for the industry. It contains consistently updated information and guidelines tailored to the needs of professionals in the pharmaceutical industry who are looking to instil a culture of eco-design in their companies.

Constraints and benefits

These efforts demonstrate the willingness of the industry to tackle the issue of sustainability, and alter packaging practices and materials to realise the benefits of a more environmentally friendly approach.

While the desire to embrace eco-design is clearly there, and more can certainly be done to reduce waste and lower the impact of packaging on the environment, there are obstacles. The pharmaceutical industry is, for good reason, heavily regulated and compliance is essential.

"The most difficult point is the primary packaging, which is in contact with the product," explains Daroux. "It is very highly regulated, so if you make any changes then you are obliged to write a variation on the pharmaceutical folder. The sector must continue to work on this topic to progress further with eco-design.

"European directives require companies to make an effort to reduce packaging at the source, limit heavy metals and use packaging that can be recovered at the end of its life – all actions that play a role in eco-design."

"Regulation makes things difficult because it is a constraint on what we do. Eco-design is an opportunity for innovation and it can bring benefits to a company. It can help companies to control their costs by reducing the consumption of raw materials and energy during production, and optimising logistics, both of which yield economic benefits for a business.

"It can also help companies to stay competitive because, by offering a new perspective on their products, eco-design will also drive them to innovate," he adds.

Daroux also points out that eco-design principles can create value for a company’s products because environmentally friendly practices are increasingly a factor in branding and influence the perception of a business among customers. Sustainability is a powerful tool for building a company’s reputation.

He also firmly believes that a culture focused on sustainable packaging has many internal benefits for companies that are truly committed to the principals of eco-friendly operation, in which packaging plays a significant role.

"Internally, it involves your teams in the pursuit of a common goal," he remarks, "The extensive reach of eco-design projects – crossing the boundaries between marketing, R&D, logistics and many other functions – means they can motivate your teams around a new central focus.

"Externally, there is also the need to comply with regulations. European directives require companies to make an effort to reduce packaging at the source, limit heavy metals and use packaging that can be recovered at the end of its life – all actions that play a role in eco-design," he continues.

The long road ahead

The fact that the drug industry has already achieved significant progress in making packaging more sustainable should not be ignored, although in many European countries, such as France, the overall volume of packaging is fairly constant (see ‘Room for improvement’ P109). According to Leem, the number of companies in the sector investing in eco-design has quadrupled in recent years. Momentum is building and best practice is evolving rapidly across the market.

The pharmaceutical industry has certainly devoted an immense amount of effort to identifying ways to reduce the overall amount of packaging, minimise waste, lower its environmental impact and demonstrate a responsible approach to the issue. But Daroux believes that this is merely the beginning.

"More can be done to adapt the number of units of a drug to the treatment of the disease, and to facilitate more improvements to primary packaging," he says.

"We can do more at the extraction stage of raw materials used in packaging, at the manufacturing stage, during transportation and at the end of life. Pharmaceutical companies just need to keep in mind two simple principles – reduce and recycle."