Sustainable packaging in pharmaceuticals

The issue of environmental sustainability is becoming more and more urgent and drives the implementation of measures that are necessary to mitigate its effects, as shown by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development signed by the UN and the ecological transition goals set by the European Union.

As far as packaging is concerned, the European Union regulates the matter very strictly with the aim of binding countries to make all packaging used on the EU market recyclable by 2030[1].

In this context, pharmaceutical packaging companies are called upon to make their products more responsible by embracing a circular economy approach. Research in this area has already brought important results and there are already numerous solutions with a reduced environmental impact.

The innovation of sustainable packaging

The general direction taken by packaging companies is towards a design model that makes production processes more sustainable and in line with the logic of circularity. In particular, eco-design criteria are already being adopted during the product conception phase, such as:

  • increasing the proportion of sustainable materials, selected from controlled supply chains and renewable sources. Companies such as Bormioli Pharma have the ambitious goal of using 50 per cent sustainable raw materials in production within just five years.
  • use of monomaterials to facilitate the separation of the different components during recycling;
  • reduction in size and weight to reduce the impact on the transport and storage of goods. In the pharmaceutical sector, for example, research has led to the development of new HDPE bottles that are up to 28% lighter and at the same time increase moisture barrier properties by 50%.

As far as secondary packaging is concerned, the European Union is pushing for the replacement of the traditional package leaflet inside medicine packaging with holographic labels or QR codes which would allow information to be accessed through the use of a smartphone. In addition to a significant reduction in the use of paper, solutions of this kind would also allow the product to be tracked throughout the supply chain, protecting it from any form of tampering or counterfeiting, as well as making it possible to update information immediately.

Sustainable pharmaceutical packaging materials: three applicable approaches

There are many types of sustainable containers and closures, which can be grouped into three different approaches.

Packaging made from recycled materials

This is certified packaging for pharmaceutical use, produced from recycled materials from controlled external supply chains. Recycled plastic bottles fall into this category, such as r-PET or r-HDPE.The percentages of recycled material may vary depending on the type of packaging and, above all, on the characteristics of the drug it is to contain. It is not only the composition of the product that is important, but also the choice of responsibly processed materials, with a lower consumption of water and energy, in a circular perspective.

Bio-based Packaging

This category includes packaging made from bioplastics, which are composed wholly or partly of renewable plant resources. Examples could be pillboxes made with bio-based PET, produced from sugar cane, or accessories made of PLA derived from corn starch. The main advantage of these solutions lies in being produced from renewable sources: this limits the problems of raw material depletion, as well as reducing the use of fossil materials and emission of greenhouse gases. Some of the bio-based products are also biodegradable and can be disposed of sustainably.

“Closed-Loop” packaging

The term “closed loop” refers to all those solutions produced through a circular process that exploits the recycling and reuse of waste material to create a new version of the same product, of equal quality to its virgin counterpart and usable for the same purpose. The product, therefore, does not end its life cycle once it ceases to be used, but is fed back into the value chain without ever becoming residual material. This category includes bottles made from cullet, or bottles made from Carbon Capture PET, a special plastic material obtained by transformingCO2 emissions into monomers. The latter is a particularly virtuous case, since it not only avoids the generation of new plastic, but at the same time enables pollution to be turned into a good.

The safety of sustainable pharmaceutical packaging

Pharmaceutical primary packaging - i.e. the one that comes into direct contact with the medicine - must always guarantee extremely high levels of protection and meet strict regulations.

It is also for these reasons that the transition from single-use to renewable packaging is more difficult than in other markets, but there are an increasing number of studies proving the safety of sustainable solutions for pharmaceutical use. For example, tests are conducted on the materials’ extractables, which prove the reliability of these products under all conditions. Each can also be accompanied by detailed LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) analyses that, by assessing the environmental footprint of a product throughout its entire life cycle, tangibly demonstrate its positive environmental value.

The regulatory framework governing nutraceuticals and cosmetics, which have long since adopted environmentally friendly packaging within their supply chain, is less stringent. For these products, there are more solutions on the market today and a wider variety of materials.

[1]Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on packaging and packaging waste, amending Regulation (EU) 2019/1020 and Directive (EU) 2019/904 and repealing Directive 94/62/EC.