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Good in a crisis

Jul 13, 2023

Events over the last year have led to an increase in demand for pharmaceutical packaging. Tony Corbin looks at how, amid the crisis, the industry is pressing ahead with meeting the seemingly undiminished demand for sustainability.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, the urgency of the situation appeared to put sustainability demands on hold. Single-use was considered desirable, even if some commentators believed this was only a short-term fix. But debates on the environment were never far away and the drive to tackle sustainable concerns in all markets continues unabated.According to Allied Market Research, the global pharmaceutical packaging market accounted for $ 88.8bn (£63.9bn) in 2019, and is expected to reach $144bn (£103bn) by 2027. The researchers say this growth can largely be attributed to advanced manufacturing processes to develop sustainable and eco-friendly packaging solutions and product innovations.

Adam Kay, sales and technical director at flexible packaging specialist Tyler Packaging believes that flexible packs have a huge role to play in pharma packaging’s sustainable future.

“The pharmaceutical industry is highly regulated,” says Kay. “Whilst the pharmaceutical market is constantly evolving, pushing innovation in an industry that must remain in a highly risk-averse space comes with its challenges.

“This can make it difficult to make the right steps towards being more sustainable. However, the modern-day consumer is becoming ever-eco-conscious. They expect almost every brand across all industries to take sustainability seriously, including the pharma industry. When it comes to sustainable packaging, however, the pharma industry faces limitations around compliance and safety regulations.”

Flexible and rigid

Kay is keen to extol the virtues of flexible packaging in this space but he makes some strong points for adopting more flexible solutions where possible. He believes that the market can benefit from “flexible packaging’s numerous environmentally-friendly benefits”, including a reduction in harmful emissions.

“Many companies are now moving away from rigid packaging and utilising more sustainable packaging options, such as flexible packaging, whilst still meeting the needs of the industry. Flexible packaging is now being used to package medical devices, liquids, wound and burn care dressings, medicated swabs, transdermal patches, capsules, pills and tablets and more.”

“Producing flexible packaging does not require as much energy consumption as many other packaging solutions. Overall, it generates less greenhouse gas emissions throughout its production and distribution than traditional packaging and takes up less space in transport. This means that less vehicles are needed for transportation, reducing the amount of fuel consumed.

“For example, a truckload of glass containers contains approximately 50% packaging whereas the same product by volume in flexible pouches contains approximately 6% packaging. If a product can be supplied using flexible pouches instead of glass jars, then for every truckload of jars, the supplier could deliver eight trucks of pouches, resulting in a large reduction in carbon footprint.”

Also looking to reduce emissions and increase recycling is Amcor. The company says its new AmSky blister system has the potential to transform the sustainability of healthcare packaging. In April, Amcor announced customer trials of the world’s first recyclable polyethylene-based thermoform blister packaging. The new packaging is designed to meet the stringent requirements of highly specialised and regulated pharmaceutical packaging and creates a more sustainable alternative for the most in-demand healthcare packaging type. The innovation is also said to benefit from up to 70% reduction in its carbon footprint. AmSk eliminates PVC (PolyVinyl Chloride) from the packaging by using a polyethylene (PE) thermoform blister and lidding film. PVC can make packaging recycling more difficult or contaminate other materials if consumers attempt to recycle it. Amcor is currently working with several leading pharmaceutical companies to bring AmSky to market globally.

“Amcor is deploying our unique innovation capabilities to solve the biggest and most significant issues in packaging today,” says Peter Konieczny, Amcor’s chief commercial officer. “With AmSky Amcor has signalled our commitment to breakthrough innovation in the healthcare space – this is why we remain the packaging partner of choice for our healthcare customers, generating close to $2bn in annual sales in this market. This new blister packaging solution will significantly enhance the ability of healthcare and pharmaceutical brands to put sustainability at the heart of their businesses.”

The sustainability / functionality balance is crucial within this category and rigid packaging certainly does the latter job for Airnov Healthcare Packaging’s series of oxygen protection and simulation solutions for manufacturers of pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products. Airnov’s Oxynov barrier bottles utilise extrusion-blow-moulding (EBM) technology, creating a six-layer bottle with ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) that, according to Airvov, offers the highest barrier to oxygen and moisture available on the market. These rigid bottles do not shrink when using oxygen absorbers, and Airnov says they offer a superior outcome to standard LDPE and HDPE bottles.

An eye for opportunity

While the general public has become more environmentally conscious, patients will also be appreciative of innovations that enable an improved, more comfortable, experience. With that in mind, last month Berry Healthcare unveiled an enhanced design for its established Rispharm R2 multidose eye dropper, providing an improved patient experience in terms of safety and convenience, while maintaining its drug protection and delivery performance without changes to pharma companies’ existing filling lines.

The new Rispharm R2 Multidose eye dropper meets the latest FDA recommendation to ensure that the tamper evident ring for any eye dropper stays connected to the bottle after opening with no risk of it falling off into the patient’s eye during administration of the product.

Berry Healthcare’s technical team has redesigned the tamper evident band to provide a secure ring retention feature, while at the same time improving the container closure integrity when in use by the patient. This further reduces the risk of product leakage and also optimises the opening and closing torque to enhance convenience and ease of access for the end-user.

Berry Healthcare says these improvements have been achieved without any major changes to the design of the bottle, enabling them to maintain the same drug administration technique.

“We understand that patients value the reassurance of a familiar routine for taking any medicines,” explained Preeti Thukral, Berry Healthcare’s head of technology. “These enhancements have therefore been implemented with no alterations to the bottle in order to maintain consumer confidence. And for pharmaceutical companies, this ensures that no changes are required for their existing filling lines.”

In addition to the functionality of what is undoubtedly a welcome innovation for many patients, its mono-material construction, which can be specified in both PE and PP, means the full system can be recycled. This highlights how sustainability has become an almost automatic, essential part of pack design briefs rather than what might have been something of an afterthought in previous decades.

Exploring alternatives

GSK Consumer Healthcare has been looking beyond glass and plastic as it hopes to inspire others by exploring paper bottling for its wellness and oral health brands. It has joined the Pulpex partner consortium, which includes Unilever and PepsiCo, to explore incorporating paper bottles into its overall packaging programme.

Pulpex is a new packaging technology company established by venture management firm Pilot Lite and spirits producer Diageo. The company has developed a scalable paper bottle using Stora Enso’s formed fibre material.

“We are determined to explore alternative packaging materials where we can, while ensuring the quality, safety and efficacy of our products,” says Sarah McDonald, vice president of sustainability, GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH). “We hope that by commercialising this technology for our industry, others will be able to follow.”

GSKCH is exploring the design and pilot of Pulpex bottles for products from three brands within its portfolio; multivitamin brand Centrum, sensitivity toothpaste Sensodyne and gum care brand parodontax.

GSKCH also aims to reduce the plastic in all of its Advil bottles sold online and in store by 20% by 2022. “As a world leader in pain relief, we at GSK are proud to transition Advil to a more environmentally friendly packaging, further supporting GSK’s commitment to sustainability,” says McDonald. “With the new technology available to us, we saw this as an opportunity to invest in the future of our brands and sustainability goals. Advil’s switch to 20% less plastic is a first in the OTC category and kicks off a series of plastic reduction initiatives across the product portfolio at GSK.”

Sustainable by design

How widespread the usage of paper bottles in pharma becomes remains to be seen. Presently there are specific areas of pharma packaging where glass and plastic play a crucial role. With vaccine production in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic running at full speed internationally, it is leading to a consistently high demand for pharmaceutical primary packaging currently made from glass such as syringes, vials and ampoules. Plastic, as is clear from the aforementioned Amcor and Berry innovations, is widely used in pharma not least for packaging the kind of products many have in their cabinets at home.

Gerresheimer is well known for its plastic containers and with its EcoLine concept the company demonstrates criteria in the development and production of its plastic container series for solid and liquid medications, which play an important role in designing sustainable packaging solutions. The Gerresheimer EcoLine concept includes the criteria of weight, volume, material and recyclability. It can be applied to all existing Gerresheimer product families such as Duma, Triveni and to the dropper bottles as well as to the PET bottles.

“You can’t recycle a classic x-large blister pack. But more and more consumers are paying attention to environmentally friendly products and to the fact that they are packaged in an environmentally friendly way or at least in an environmentally compatible way. I think that’s good, and I do the same myself,” says Niels Düring, global executive vice president primary packaging plastic. “This is also confirmed by our customers who are looking for a packaging solution for their pharmaceutical product in which the contents can be used and stored safely.

“Our EcoLine concept helps them find a solution that optimally combines quality and sustainability by ensuring tight and light solutions.”


Consumer safety“The safety of the consumer is, of course, an important consideration for any area of packaging manufacture, but when it comes to pharmaceutical products, it’s critical. Not only do the drugs themselves have to reach the patient uncontaminated, but there are also aspects, such as child safety, to bear in mind when dealing with potentially lethal substances.”Adam Kay, Tyler Packaging

Setting realistic sustainability targets“With many consumers developing an eye for greenwash it’s important that attainable goals are set and companies are seen to be actively working towards them.“As part of its drive to make all of its packaging recyclable or reusable, GSKCH is partnering with tube manufacturer Albea and EPL Global to launch fully recyclable toothpaste tubes.“We have made the commitment that 100% of our product packaging will be recyclable or reusable, where quality and safety permits, by 2025. This is just one part of our ongoing sustainability journey, in which we are working to address the environmental and societal barriers to everyday health.”Sarah McDonald, GSK Consumer Healthcare

Flexible and rigidAn eye for opportunityExploring alternativesSustainable by designKEY CHALLENGESConsumer safetySetting realistic sustainability targetsPN Staff