While the medicines produced by drug manufacturers help prevent disease and save lives, there is growing recognition that they can also have a negative impact on the environment. As the world becomes progressively more concerned about waste and the amount of plastic in our oceans, efforts to improve sustainability are taking on increased significance in the pharmaceutical industry.

Arguably the biggest challenge the industry faces is stopping toxic medicines entering the environment during production, consumption or disposal. According to a landmark 2016 literature review in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 631 different pharmaceutical substances have been detected in the environments of 71 countries, covering every continent.

Another central, if slightly overlooked, concern is ensuring the sustainability of the packaging materials being used. All drugs require some form of packaging to protect them from damage – from primary packaging in direct contact with the product to secondary packaging that holds and markets the product, and tertiary packaging for bulk handling and shipping.

While the materials used in these three layers can vary, the most common pharmaceutical packaging product remains plastic, which is lightweight and durable but not easily recyclable. The material is often used once, before being sent to a landfill, or dumped into our oceans, where by 2050 the UN says there will be more plastic than fish unless action is taken. “While there remains a degree of scepticism regarding the detail, nature and geographical source of global plastic waste, there is clearly no time to be lost in addressing the bigger issue,” says Jon Lant, head of new product development and innovation at Origin. “There are aspects to the plastics crisis within our control and opportunities to demonstrate our commitment as an industry to pioneer in the realisation of a safer, sustainable environment.”

Sustainability is serious business

How seriously pharmaceutical companies take this issue is hard to gauge. A recent study on sustainable packaging from the software company Empauer in partnership with Adduco Communications, found that while 90% of respondents from the pharmaceutical sector reported their management was “well attuned” to sustainability issues, many believe they can do more to help.

“The pharmaceutical sector as an industry indicated their goals were higher than what they are actually achieving at a company level,” Empauer’s Victor Barichello said upon the release. “As such, there was an acknowledgement that they still have a way to go to meet goals.”

Of course, designing sustainable packaging products in the pharmaceutical industry is not easy. Alongside protecting the environment, designers must consider issues such as cost, manufacturing capabilities, product safety, serialisation regulations, customer compliance and product marketing.

“Packaging plays a critical role in maintaining the quality, safety and integrity of our products throughout the value chain,” said a spokesperson from Johnson & Johnson, the US multinational medical devices, pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods manufacturing company.

“It also delivers important information to patients and consumers about product composition and guidance for proper use,” the spokesperson continued. “Packaging regulations and requirements vary in different markets where we operate. Our sustainable packaging strategy requires that, at a minimum, all product packaging must comply with local packaging regulations. In addition, we continuously explore opportunities to reduce environmental impacts of our packaging.”

Balancing these different design considerations together may involve trade-offs. Some analysts say fear of damaging products and breaking stringent regulations, for example, are likely to have hampered the development and uptake of new, sustainable packaging materials.

“In an industry that requires the most exacting health and safety standards, other design priorities, such as tamper evidence, child resistance or shelf life will always take precedence,” Jon Wear, sales director at Johnsen & Jorgensen, a UK-based packaging supplier said. “The nature of pharmaceutical products means that the majority of the containers used are disposable and only suitable for one use. In addition, the bureaucracy that inhibits even simple changes to pharmaceutical packaging is also a major issue; any licensed drug or medicine that undergoes a change to its packaging container, closure or labelling must be reregistered. This is often an expense and inconvenience that few manufacturers are prepared to bear.”

In a recent article for Packaging Digest, Tom Egan, from the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, offers the example of a pain relief product travelling through a pharmaceutical supply chain. If at any stage the package fails to protect the product against the elements – be it light, air or temperature – the drug may become ineffective. The same stands, he adds, for packaging materials that fail to protect products or pharmaceutical industry workers against contaminants.

“Lightweighting blister pack materials, for example, may leave healthcare workers handling a product vulnerable to contamination,” said Egan. “Such was the case with dutasteride, which contaminated the inside and outside of Avolve capsule blister packs, and cyclophosphamide (CP), an antitumour drug with dangerous contaminants. Therefore, manufacturers must look to other areas where savings are possible.”

Like Wear, Egan says the primary concern for any pharmaceutical company or packaging supplier will always be protecting the integrity of the drug and ultimately the end user – even if it is at the expense of sustainability.

“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,” he said.

A change is coming

Despite these challenges, many leading pharmaceutical companies have announced major changes to their packaging lines as part of wider sustainability strategies. A spokesperson at Johnson & Johnson said its approach to sustainable packaging currently involves five key pillars: “Reducing material use by decreasing packaging size, weight or thickness; using packaging materials with more recycled content; designing for recyclability by selecting materials that are already widely recycled in the given market; purchasing responsibly sourced packaging materials; and influencing recycling rates by raising consumer and customer awareness.

“To further develop and scale up sustainable packaging best practices, we made a public commitment to increase the recyclability of packaging in five key markets in the consumer segment as part of our Health for Humanity 2020 goals. We are also promoting scalable programmes that help people generate value from waste, like Project Phoenix, a programme to help recycling cooperatives in Brazil improve their operational processes, develop a stronger social infrastructure, and create a sustainable market for their materials.”

In 2008, US healthcare company Abbot Laboratories notably developed a new packaging guideline to help its purchasing staff make more sustainable choices. In 2009, the company then launched more than 40 sustainable packaging initiatives across its nutrition, pharmaceutical and medical product businesses. The result has been significant, and according to the company’s 2017 Global Sustainability Report, it has eliminated a staggering 33.7 million pounds of packaging in the past seven years.

Of course, much of the innovation is coming from the packaging suppliers themselves. One standout innovation of the past few years, for example, is the Ecoslide-RX from Keystone Folding Box Company and Legacy Pharmaceutical Packaging. The pack, which can now be found in Walmart pharmacies, is made from 100% recycled material, and uses unbleached paperboard and a clay-coated surface to store blister packaging with reduced foil and film.

“It is the most economical and environmentally friendly compliance packaging available today,” said marketing director Ward Smith at the product’s original launch.

A number of new sustainable packaging materials that can be more easily reused or recycled are also now available. They include post-consumer regrind, a recycled plastic, biodegradable products – like recycled paper, paperboard and corn starch – and bio-based polyethene terephthalate (PET) made from ethylene derived from sugarcane. The latter material is easily recyclable and its production uses carbon dioxide and releases oxygen, meaning it has a negative carbon footprint.

“Some of the latest applications for alternative forms of plastic include pioneering technology converting PET waste back into virgingrade material for use,” says Lant. “It works by taking non-recycled PET waste, such as coloured bottles, and breaking it down to base molecule level, while separating the colour and other contaminants. The molecules are converted back into PET, which is equal to virgingrade quality. The technology has successfully passed its pilot stage and is now moving towards testing at an industrial scale.”

Use only what you need

Like Abbot Laboratories, many companies have tried to reduce the overall amount of packaging they use as a way to boost their sustainability credentials. This can be done through packaging designs that weigh less or require less space, or through smarter design and manufacturing processes. 3D printers, for example “are cutting back on waste during the research and development stages of pack development, as it slowly adds material to an item until it is complete,” says Lant. “Most other manufacturing methods are subtractive, but with additive manufacturing you are building objects from the bottom up and only using the material you need.

“Rheological, thermal and mechanical mould design, with the help of a wide variety of software solutions, is part of the answer to reducing waste in the design and processing stages,” Lant adds. “Computeraided design and computer-aided manufacturing also allows close tolerances during the mould-making stage, further enhancing accuracy.”

Of course, sustainability in the pharmaceutical industry requires a wider effort, of which packaging is just one component. In the US, pharmaceutical companies currently spend roughly $1 billion per year powering their manufacturing facilities. With companies required to cater for an increasingly diverse range of pharmaceutical products, reducing energy consumption is not getting easier. In such a heavily regulated, cost-conscious environment, analysts say sharing insights and collaborating on sustainability initiatives will be crucial in the years to come.

“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,” Egan said in his August article. “Through collaboration, innovation and thoroughly evaluating existing operations and practices, life sciences companies can implement sustainable initiatives with impact.”