When it comes to packaging pharmaceutical products, the top priorities will always be to ensure patient safety and the integrity of the drugs that are being sold. Nevertheless, the industry is increasingly focusing its attention on the need to improve the sustainability of its packaging. This is partly driven by a changing regulatory regime and by potential cost savings in some instances, but the crossover of ideas from other markets is also crucial.

For a company like Johnson & Johnson, which is a big player in pharma and the consumer goods space, it is the transfer of innovative ideas from one market to the other that allows it to remain a leader in green packaging solutions.

"In the pharma industry, packaging is still emerging as an issue in its approach to sustainability. The focus has been on other issues, such as green chemistry, that have a huge impact on cost and the reduction of the industry’s impact on the environment. Packaging, however, is getting more attention and the large, branded pharma companies are re-examining their packaging requirements," says Philip Dahlin, director of sustainability at Johnson & Johnson.

"Johnson & Johnson’s business covers medical devices, pharmaceuticals and the consumer goods sector and it is in the consumer products area that sustainable packaging is already a huge issue. We can apply what we learn in that sector to the pharmaceuticals business," he adds.

Leave no trace?

Johnson & Johnson’s approach to sustainability is coordinated across all its markets and is embodied in its ‘Earthwards’ product-stewardship programme, which lays down its strategy for designing and manufacturing more sustainable products. Its starting point is the recognition that every product has an environmental footprint that is defined by everything from the energy used to operate a medical device or the materials required to package a consumer product.

The Earthwards approach defines how the company addresses the environmental and social impacts of its products and engages development teams in designing innovative solutions across a product’s life cycle from formulation and manufacturing to product use and end-of-life. The programme is part of the company’s Healthy Future 2015 goal to improve the sustainability of its products and packaging, and the goal is to deliver 60 Earthwards recognised products by 2015.

"Reusable shippers are becoming the norm, having replaced the traditional Styrofoam boxes with gel packs. Single-use packaging could soon become a thing of the past."

"Our approach, through the product stewardship programme, is to evaluate all products to identify areas for optimisation and this applies to all of our business sectors. The key questions now are whether we can use less packaging and maintain the same integrity, and whether we can use more sustainable packaging materials," says Dahlin.

"In the pharmaceutical sector we can do more with secondary and tertiary packaging because it is less tightly regulated than primary packaging. So, we have developed lightweight shippers with the same level of performance. Those shippers and the cartons they contain also use more recycled material in their construction," he adds.

The creative spark

A host of new ideas are currently shaping packaging solutions, or will improve sustainability in the future. One concept that has found its way into the pharma space from the consumer products sector is the use of bio-plastics. Bio-based PET may soon become a more common feature in the pharma market, though it is already familiar in the consumer beverage market.

In 2010, Coca-Cola began using the PlantBottle, a PET containing 30% plant-based material. Two years later, it joined other beverage companies in the pursuit of a 100% bio-plastic bottle. Those years of investment and effort by large beverage companies have encouraged the use of bio-plastics in the pharma space, which inevitably lags behind because of the stricter processes of validation that apply to medicines.

Johnson & Johnson has a central strategic design organisation that has driven advances in areas such as designs for the kitting of syringes to minimise space and improve packing efficiency, as well as maximising use of recycled material, while maintaining ease of use of the end product for patients of physicians.

"Where we don’t use recycled material, we ensure that we have certified sustainable sources, such as for the paper that is used in our packaging. We ensure it is sourced from sustainable forests and that all the material is traceable," notes Dahlin.

"Another way we can improve pharmaceutical packaging is by looking at moulded fibre compared with plastics for use in trays. Again, this is an idea that has come over from the consumer products sector, where we have carefully considered the role of plastics in pollution."

One area in which a lot of progress has been made is the cold chain. Reusable shippers are becoming the norm, having replaced the traditional Styrofoam boxes with gel packs. Single-use packaging could soon become a thing of the past.

Nevertheless, there is one big challenge in the pharma packaging space for which there is, as yet, no clear solution.

"We are also looking for the holy grail of pharmaceutical packaging, which is the replacement of PVC blister packs for tablets. Our company, and others, are looking for the best way to do that. We have a policy to eliminate the use of PVC in all our product areas, but the one area in which we haven’t been able to achieve that is blister packs," Dahlin explains.

"Sweden is pushing people to look at the full recyclability of packaging, including blister packs. At the moment, the combination of plastic and foil that is used means packs are not recyclable, so if Sweden goes for that it could be a real challenge to make that kind of packaging fully recyclable. At the same time the guidance from regulators in Europe encourages unit-dose packaging, which drives greater use of blister packs, though this is less common in the US. So, it is ironic that Europe is more focused on the elimination of PVC but pushes the market towards using blister packs, which are not only more expensive than the bulk bottle packaging preferred for tablets in the US, but also not recyclable."

Heads together

Step changes in sustainability will only come about through the sharing of ideas, not only between market sectors, but also between partners in the supply chain. A collaborative approach is essential and Johnson & Johnson is working with many different stakeholders to push sustainable solutions forward.

"The partnerships pharma companies make with packaging suppliers will be vital to addressing the challenges of a future that will be heavily influenced by regulators."

One of the key link-ups is with healthcare providers, and in the UK the company is working with the National Health Service (NHS) Sustainable Development Unit (SDU). Based in Cambridge, the SDU is jointly funded by NHS England and Public Health England to ensure that the health and care system fulfils its potential as a leading sustainable and low-carbon service. Its focus is on developing organisations, people, tools, policy and research that enable organisations to promote sustainable development, and to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

In the US, NGOs such as Practice Greenhealth also have a strong influence on the development of environmental solutions for the healthcare sector. It is a non-profit membership organisation founded by organisations in the healthcare community on the principles of positive environmental stewardship and best practice. Among its key objectives are to eliminate mercury, reduce and recycle solid waste, reduce regulated and chemical waste, reduce energy and water consumption, create healing environments, and establish green purchasing policies.

Perhaps the most important relationship, however, is with the company’s direct suppliers of packaging, which have already taken important steps to address the challenges posed by recycled material. For instance, the recycled material in cartons is made up of shorter fibres, which raises the risk of more dust in the packaging plant that could pose a big problem for pharmaceutical products.

"Our suppliers are working on the dust issue as customers demand more recycled content and drive toward a circular economy. In fact, relationships with suppliers are important for developing new concepts. We regularly hold supplier innovation events and many suppliers have their own innovation labs. The idea of shared risk is becoming more important in the development of new materials and new types of packaging, so that the risk is not all on the suppliers when it comes to getting approvals," says Dahlin.

The partnerships pharma companies make with packaging suppliers will be vital to addressing the challenges of a future that will be heavily influenced by regulators.

"The next step in the US could depend on the success of efforts to put in place European-style producer responsibility standards, which could include take-back programmes for packaging. That is the biggest issue on our radar and it could gain traction, which in turn could drive more use of returnable or reusable shippers, especially in the cold chain, where there will be a reduction in single-use packaging," believes Dahlin.

"Whatever innovation comes, it will take more time and money to validate it for the pharmaceutical space. That is one reason why packaging innovation will be driven more by the consumer products market. This makes sense because new ideas are not only driven by cost savings and regulatory compliance, but also by customer preference. People increasingly want to know about the sustainable profile of the products they use."

For sustainable pharma packaging, the road ahead may be slow going, but, by harvesting ideas from other markets, the industry can surely keep pace with the changing demands of end users and regulators.