The types of sustainable plastics in primary pharmaceutical packaging

As global attention to environmental sustainability increases, the pharmaceutical industry - responsible for an annual direct emission of around 52 Mt CO2 [1] - is also increasingly looking for innovative solutions to reduce its impact on the planet.

In this context, pharmaceutical packaging plays a crucial role. Packaging companies are, in fact, investing in the development of solutions that have a more environmentally responsible approach, creating packaging products from recycled plastic.

Thanks to numerous advances in the field, there are now several plastic recycling technologies that offer solutions for the various needs of medicines.

Mechanical Recycling of Plastics

Mechanical recycling is generally the most common and traditional method used to recover post-consumer plastics. This is also true for pharmaceutical packaging, as this widespread recycling method enables plastic bottles from safe and controlled supply chains to be transformed into new containers and closures.Primarily used for the production of PET packaging, the mechanical recycling process involves the following steps:

  • Collection and selection: Bottles from separate waste collection are first sorted by plastic types and selected only if suitable for recycling.
  • Cleaning: The bottles are then washed thoroughly to ensure the purity of the recycled material and subsequently shredded into small pieces called 'flakes'.
  • Further cleaning and separation: The flakes are further washed and, if necessary, also sorted as required.
  • Fusion and extrusion: The cleaned flakes are then melted and passed through an extruder to form granules or pellets. These pellets are the raw material used to produce new plastic objects.

The mechanical recycling process of plastic bottles for pharmaceutical use is influenced by various factors, including the purity of the material collected, the technologies used for sorting and cleaning, as well as the specific requirements of the market, which demands products of the highest quality and safety. This is why it is essential to ensure a controlled supply chain and provide certifications that attest to the suitability of the products for drug containment.

To achieve this suitability, the new material must first obtain certification for pharmaceutical use. The finished product is then tested and approved for the specific drug it is to contain.

Advanced Recycling of Plastics in Drug Packaging

The advanced recycling or 'chemical recycling' of plastics involves the decomposition of plastic polymers into monomers or other basic chemical compounds, which can be reused to create new PET bottles and pill bottles.

Thanks to the depolymerisation of plastic waste, from which it is possible to obtain new material with characteristics identical to the virgin material, advanced recycling makes it possible to obtain bottles of the highest quality and safety. A further advantage of this process is that it can be repeated several times without affecting the quality of the finished product and can also be obtained from waste that is usually very difficult to recycle. The result is a certified PET suitable for food contact according to EU and FDA regulations, and also currently being validated by the European Pharmacopoeia.

Plastics from Carbon Capture Technology in Pharmaceutical Packaging

This innovative technology makes it possible to capture carbon emissions from heavy industry and reuse them for the production of PET, one of the most popular plastics and also widely used in the pharmaceutical industry.

Ethanol is captured and isolated from the waste carbon, through advanced fermentation processes. It is then converted into monoethylene glycol (MEG), a key molecule for the subsequent production of PET.

Not only does this solution avoid the use of virgin fossil carbon in the creation of plastics, but it also safeguards the planet from new emissions, fostering a truly circular economy model.

The quality of products made using this technology is extremely high, so much so that scientific studies and analyses demonstrate characteristics that are comparable to virgin material counterparts, both in terms of chemical-mechanical and aesthetic performance.

Plant-based solutions in pharmaceutical packaging

This is pharmaceutical packaging made from bioplastics derived from renewable plant resources, such as pill bottles made from Green PE, a material produced from sugar cane, or from BIO PET derived directly from wood, both harvested from certified, responsibly managed forests.

In the first case, sugar cane waste undergoes a fermentation process to obtain bio-ethanol, which is then used to make the plastic material. In the second, the processing of wood residues leads to the creation of propylene glycol, which is used to generate the bioplastic polymer.

Bio-based solutions are mainly suitable for nutraceuticals and food supplements. Fully degradable in 60 days in industrial composting plants, these solutions have food quality certification for the EU and US, a strong moisture barrier, and excellent physical and mechanical properties. 

A scientific approach to the safety of recycled plastics

As it is essential that pharmaceutical packaging must first and foremost ensure therapeutic efficacy and patient safety, it is important for manufacturers of sustainable solutions to adopt a scientific, data-driven approach.

Best practices in this regard include: extensive testing, also carried out by certified third-party organisations, on environmentally friendly products demonstrating adequate extractables; certified LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) studies, certifying the low environmental impact of the product, from the production of raw materials to distribution to the end user.


Plastic recycling in pharmaceutical packaging is an essential part of the industry's environmental sustainability strategy. While mechanical recycling represents the main techniques, more innovative solutions such as Advanced Recycling PET or Carbon Capture PET are also emerging. For a more sustainable future, investing in research and development of these technologies is crucial, as well as in awareness-raising and cooperation between industry, governments and consumers. Only a joint effort will make it possible to significantly reduce the environmental impact of pharmaceutical packaging.