With the global sustainable packaging market estimated at US$220 billion in 2018 and projected to reach US$280 billion by 2025, sustainability has become an important part of the overall brand image story for many pharmaceutical companies
The top five drivers of this move to sustainability, according to the Packaging Sustainability: A Changing Landscape report from PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, include brand perception, competitive pressure, environmental advocates, top-down company culture and good stewards of the planet. While a major focus for many, nearly two out of three brand owners participating in the PMMI report cited added cost as the top reason their sustainable packaging initiatives have slowed.
While the package is a vital part of any sustainability strategy, how the product gets into the package also warrants consideration. Solutions such as integrated monitoring and more flexible machinery can aid pharmaceutical manufacturers in improving the sustainability of their packaging operations through improvements in areas such as packaging material loss and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). With sustainability an important driver, Changes in materials and packaging formats to improve these efforts has an impact on machinery and operations.
Technology advances are also driving efficiency, which, in turn, will assist with sustainability efforts. Industry 4.0 will utilise automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to increase the efficiency of packaging operations. These advances will enable the identification of problems before they occur, reducing material waste and product loss.
The PMMI report outlines five top functional machine improvements that have the greatest impact on manufacturing operations when moving to more sustainable packaging:
When looking at operations and the machine improvements needed, pharmaceutical manufacturers need to decide whether it is beneficial to buy new equipment or modify existing equipment. This decision depends on many factors in their drive toward sustainable packaging. Pharmaceutical companies are the least likely to make machine modifications due to strict validation requirements. They are looking for new machines to fill, index, cap and seal, as well as robotic and automated solutions for end-of-line.
Another consideration is the type of packaging operation as different packaging functions have different challenges. For example, in thermoforming processes, substrates have different melting points and do not flow the same, causing performance issues when forming trays. Monomaterials, touted for their recyclability, are gaining attention, but sealing can be a problem at higher speeds. Sealing can also be a challenge when filling varied shapes and sizes; using more sustainable materials may mean a stronger seal is required.
Most (67 per cent) of manufacturers experience and expect machine issues when introducing new materials. For pharmaceutical manufacturers, the biggest challenge is the requirement of equipment validation with each package change. Additionally, manufacturers require highly reliable data collection from sensor feedback to measure sustainability goals. Sealing and closing during filling can be a problem with thinner films, and conveying lighter gauge materials can often cause jams. In some instances, manufacturers are moving from hot glue to ultrasonic sealing to reduce waste.
Despite these challenges, 53 per cent of manufacturers are evaluating or implementing new materials to be more sustainable. Some of the material innovations reported include barrier layers that are recyclable, new substances to extend shelf life, plant-based material that is renewable, 100 per cent recyclable mono-materials with barrier properties and affordable bio-based alternatives that are biodegradable and compostable.
On the packaging materials side, the industry is working towards developing materials that offer the right combination of being fully sustainable, affordable and protective while maintaining shelf aesthetics. Report participants indicated they are looking for ideal characteristics such as cost-effective, scalable manufacturing, globally available, robust and protective and efficient to ship.
On a global level, over 450 partner companies, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with the UN Environment Program, have entered into a global commitment to achieve a clear set of sustainability goals by 2025. One of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for packaging includes working towards 100 per cent reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. They acknowledge using recycled content is essential.
When working to achieve sustainability goals, pharmaceutical manufacturers should consider identifying material alternatives that offer equal or less costs, use fewer resources and produce less waste. In addition, it is important to implement operational changes that bring equal or improved quality. When making changes, focus on cultural changes that will have a measurable impact as well as allocate enough resources to address sustainability aggressively. In order to ensure buy-in throughout an organisation, install company-wide recognition of the importance of sustainability.
When looking to develop a more sustainable package, PMMI’s report outlines some key guidelines that can help:
Newer, renewable packaging materials, including plant-based and bio-based packaging options, can create a circular economy and are being explored by more than one in four participants in PMMI’s report. One vitamin and supplements manufacturer reports implementing an initiative to add sustainable packaging to their products. When looking at these materials, manufacturers need to consider factors such as how fast the new materials can run, the material’s limiting effect on machine flexibility and possible machine modifications. That said, the global market for bioplastics is predicted to grow by more than 15 per cent over the next five years. Currently, 45 per cent of all bioplastics are produced in Asia and 20 per cent in the EU. The EU share is expected to climb 30 per cent by 2024.
With one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals centering around reuse business models as a preferred “inner loop” and reducing the need for single-use plastic packaging, over one in three brand owners participating in the PMMI report are implementing reuse, return or refill options. One vitamin/supplements producer reported exploring a program to return packages through distributors, providing a reward or benefit for returns. A global leader in healthcare products has created product recycling for hospitals and a returnable program for vision care products.
These types of returnable packaging programmes warrant careful consideration as they require more labor, stringent cleaning, dedicated infrastructure, cost justification, robust packaging and more consumer involvement.
PMMI’s report highlights the fact that the key to successful sustainability initiatives takes teamwork from packaging engineers and product developers. Reducing packaging’s impact on the environment is a way to build brand loyalty and connect with customers. The quest for a more sustainable package has thrown open the doors to innovation and companies are thinking beyond traditional approaches to develop innovative and novel solutions to improve the sustainability of their packaging.
Additionally, true sustainability takes consumer cooperation. One of the UN Sustainability Development Goals is to commit to achieving the vision via collaboration with the private sector. Of the participants in the PMMI report, over half (52 per cent) agree that consumers need better education to understand sustainability and what it really means for packaging design and costs. The next generation of consumers will demand less material in packaging, and companies need to look at their entire sustainability equation. According to a GlobalWebIndex survey, 59 per cent of consumers way they would pay more for eco-friendly packaging.
As the sustainability initiative grows, it is more important than ever that pharmaceutical manufacturers stay abreast of the latest developments.
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