Energy - Environment - Mobility

How can pharmaceutical manufacturers move towards sustainable pharmaceutical packaging?

Published on 02 November 2023 Read 25 min

Pharma companies are awakening to the importance of engaging in an ambitious sustainability strategy, including packaging. Indeed, pressure from stakeholders is increasing, with growing market expectations towards large companies, investors are now looking carefully at ESG criteria and tenders including these criteria. Moreover, regulation is toughening: in Europe, the new CSRD directive (Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive) is broadening the obligation of ESG reporting. In this article, Alcimed explores possible solutions for improving the sustainability of pharmaceutical packaging.

Pharmaceutical companies need to rethink their packaging to meet market expectations and regulations

One of the key sustainability topics for pharma companies is packaging. First because it is a key lever to reduce companies’ scope 3 emissions (i.e. the indirect emissions linked to the value chain), which generally represent approximately 80% of a company’s GHG emissions.
But also because packaging results in significant amounts of waste, which are directly visible by the consumers and the patients. Therefore, it is a topic that they are often sensible to, and thus proposing sustainable packaging can be a axis of differentiation for companies.

Three solutions to improve the sustainability of pharma products’ packaging

For pharma products there are 3 types of packaging to consider: the primary packaging, which is in contact with the product (blisters, tubes, syringes, etc.), the secondary packaging (carton boxes, leaflets, etc.), and the tertiary packaging (pallets). Several strategies can be taken to reduce their environmental impact.

Solution 1: rethinking the design

The first strategy is to rethink the design of the packaging in order to reduce its size and weight, to eliminate unnecessary elements, thus resulting in a reduction of the total quantity of material used.

For example, GSK has committed to reducing the plastic in over 80 million Advil bottles annually by 20% by adapting a technology called Compression Blow Forming (CBF), which decreases the amount of resin required to mold and craft the bottles. This will result in the elimination of the equivalent of nearly 500,000 pounds of plastic in the environment, or 1000 Metric Tons CO2e[1].

Solution 2: rethinking the materials

Beyond rethinking the design of the packaging, it is essential to rethink the materials of the packaging in order to reduce their impact, at production and end of life.

The strategies that are usually explored are using recycled, biosourced or recyclable materials.

Using recycled or biobased materials can be an attractive solution, and is often well perceived and valorised by consumers. However, they present several challenges. These types of material often have lower barrier performance, therefore cannot be used for primary packaging. Moreover, biosourced materials should be carefully investigated, as some are controversial due to the deforestation they sometimes entail (e.g., bioPET from sugarcane). To also note that “biosourced” is not a synonym of biodegradable!

Therefore, the focus is often put on ensuring that packaging solutions are at least recyclable, which is often not the case with current packaging. In particular, a major issue in the pharma industry is the use of blisters for oral pills, which are most of the time non-recyclable as they are a mix of aluminium and plastic (PVC). To address this challenge, many sustainable innovations are being launched by packaging manufacturers, with for example mono PE or paper-based solutions. However, the challenge with sustainable blisters is offering the right level of barrier performance. Packaging suppliers are deploying R&D efforts to propose sustainable solutions that have higher performance and that could therefore fit for products with higher sensitivity.

Additionally, some products cannot be recycled through standard recycling streams due to their complexity. It is therefore necessary to create a dedicated stream, which requires a collaborative approach to ensure sufficient volumes and environmental relevance. This is the approach that was recently taken by Novo Nordisk, Sanofi, Eli Lilly and Company and Merck with a pilot in Denmark to collect and recycle 25% of all injection pens distributed by the four companies in Denmark, amounting to more than 25 tonnes of plastic.

Find out how our team can support you in your material recycling projects >

Solution 3 : rethinking the business model

Finally, by definition, the most sustainable packaging is the one that doesn’t exist. This “zero waste” approach is being developed in the FMCG industry with several reusable business models that thus eliminate single waste packaging.

Beyond FMCG, this approach is now leveraged by the dermocosmetics sector, who starts to propose reusable solutions in pharmacies. In France for example, 5 companies, Laboratoires Expanscience, Garancia, La Rosée cosmetics, Bioderma (NAOS) and Pierre Fabre dermocosmetics, have engaged in a collaborative approach to offer 15 products in a reusable glass container. This is tested through a pilot started in June 2023 in a Parisian pharmacy, with the goal to then extend the approach[2].

While reusable packaging certainly has safety and regulatory challenges for the pharma industry, this is an approach that is worth investigating due to its interest both on an environmental and differentiation standpoint.

While the sustainability topic was spearheaded by B2C sectors like the cosmetics or food industries, the pharma sector is now committing to the topic, to address the evolving expectations of stakeholders and to leverage the opportunities that it represents.

In particular, pharma companies must now anticipate and pro-actively reconsider their packaging. A tailored strategy needs to be designed for each product and geography, starting with a lifecycle analysis, due to the specific environmental challenges and performance requirements of each packaging. Companies should be on the watch and carefully monitor both upcoming regulations, that can ban some materials or require others, and new innovations proposed by packaging suppliers that now have sustainability as a priority. This is also an opportunity for companies to differentiate, with both quick wins and ambitious projects with high impact that can be conducted.

Our team is ready to support you to define your sustainable packaging strategy, or to identify innovative solutions that will enable you to achieve your goals. Don’t hesitate to contact our team!

[1] Sustainability | Advil. (n.d.).

About the author, 

Pauline, Project Manager in the Alcimed’s Healthcare team in France

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