Pharmaceutical Packaging and Sustainability: a possible encounter

The world of pharmaceutical packaging can no longer ignore sustainability. This is not the usual wish of environmental associations, but a concrete request from the World Health Organization, which for years has been encouraging nations to undertake policies that encourage the proper disposal of medical and pharmaceutical waste.

Until a few years ago, the choice of packaging for a drug was primarily dictated by two fundamental aspects: safety and reliability, so that its integrity was ensured during all stages of distribution. To this was added, for some drugs, convenience of use by end users. Finally, sustainability is also added to this short list!

Some might argue that the sector’s impact on the huge amount of waste produced each year is decidedly small compared to other sectors (think plastic bottles); but in the case of pharmaceuticals, the situation is decidedly more complex.

Drugs are considered special waste and this requires a special disposal procedure: the European Union of course has its own guidelines but each country has precise regulations (for example, here are the US FDA regulations). 

When talking about recycling, it is indeed essential to distinguish between packaging that remains contaminated by direct contact with the product (such as tubes and bottles), and that which is uncontaminated, for example, the cardboard boxes that wrap them and we usually find on pharmacy shelves. In the latter case, recycling is relatively simple, just collecting the waste properly and preparing it for disposal in appropriate facilities. But in the case of contaminated packaging, an extra level of care is needed: the substance with which the packaging comes into contract could in fact make disposal much more difficult. In the case of food, such as sauces or juices, there are no major problems: depending on the case, the packaging can either be cleaned up and recovered (e.g., glass jars or aluminum tubes) or incinerated (e.g., cardboard boxes from frozen foods).

But what about when it comes to pharmaceuticals? In some cases, residues left within the primary packaging can act on a chemical level to the point of compromising the recycling process. This is particularly true for compostable materials: since we do not know exactly the chemical composition of the cream or ointment contained in the tube, we cannot be certain that it contains only compostable substances. The contents could therefore undermine the celebrated “return to nature” of compostable packaging.

In Pharma, completely decontaminating primary packaging to the point where it can be recycled and the material safely reused is utopian; the alternatives are incineration or storage in special landfills. But even in these cases, the consequences must be considered: what happens to certain substances if they are burned? Can they release harmful gases? And if they are stored, over time, can they release substances that can penetrate the soil and perhaps percolate into groundwater?

As can be seen from these reflections, then, the recovery of pharmaceutical packaging is undoubtedly an issue of paramount importance, and pharmaceutical companies can no longer consider it as a side issue: human health is closely linked to the health of the planet, and dealing with the former while ignoring the latter is in fact a contradiction in terms. For this reason, the WHO encourages pharmaceutical companies to consider the degree to which their products are recyclable at the end of their use cycle, seeking to favor packaging with less environmental impact wherever possible. It is, in short, the principle of “sustainability by design” finally applied to the world of Pharma.

Of course, this is not an easy step, not least because pharmaceutical packaging is strictly regulated by stringent regulations aimed at protecting the end consumer. When a new drug comes out on the market, it undergoes rigorous testing that includes its packaging. If the packaging changes, the drug must go through the entire regulatory process again, which is clearly time-consuming and costly, and this contributes to pharmaceutical companies being decidedly “conservative” about their packaging choices, pushing them to understandable but ineffective compromises on the sustainability front. For example, continuing to use plastic packaging but reducing its weight.

This is what is known as “lightweighting” : according to the recent report by PMMI (Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies) called “”Pharmaceutical Manufacturing, Trends Shaping the Future.” as many as 67% of drug manufacturers cite it as a strategy for environmental sustainability. A figure that highlights that there is still reluctance to open up to real change.

Legislators on this front can make a difference, by encouraging  the use of innovative materials, such as biopolymers, and processes that can produce savings in energy and materials. Even 3D printers are finding increasing application in this regard! But this is just the beginning of this complex transition, and it is understandable that pharmaceutical companies are showing caution, for fear of getting bogged down in regulatory swamps.

Something seems to be moving, however: the organizers of Connect in Pharma, a celebrated event dedicated to the pharmaceutical world, have announced the winners of the Sustainable Medicines Packaging Awards, who will receive the award in attendance at a ceremony in Geneva next September. The awards are divided into two categories: Design Award, which focuses on materials, components, but also packaging sizes and shapes that can reduce environmental impact, and Circularity Award, which focuses instead on sustainable innovation in terms of production processes, distribution, logistics and circular economy.

Europe has all the credentials to become a leader in this revolution: there are many companies aiming for sustainable innovation, including in pharma. But in the immediate term, at least for some products, there is already a well-established packaging solution that complies with all industry regulations and is already well known to the end public: the aluminum tube.

Aluminum is 100 percent and infinitely recyclable, never losing its original qualities. And its recycling process requires less energy than production from raw material.

For Regulatory, aluminum pharmaceutical tubes are always produced from not-recycled raw material to allow the degree of purity that makes it possible to process them while ensuring their integrity. But once its cycle of use is over, if properly disposed of, the aluminum tube can be recovered and put to other uses: the most common, is the creation of aluminum profiles for construction, particularly for window frames! So here is how a disposable – and – throw-away product can be transformed into a durable good that can last for decades (and then be recycled again!).

Tubettificio Favia has over 80 years of experience in the production of deformable aluminum tubes for the pharmaceutical industry: we have worked alongside important Italian and international companies and accumulated a unique know-how in understanding the needs of the supply chain. Contact us to learn more: we will be happy to answer all your questions and send you a sample of tubes!

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