By Steve Brownett-Gale, Marketing Lead at Origin
Modern pharmaceutical packaging relies heavily on plastic, owing to its wide variety of uses and benefits including sterility and durability, while also being chemically inactive or inert.
But considering the growing fight against plastic waste, tightening environmental regulation and changing public opinion, it is vital pharma finds new and more responsible ways to use plastic within its primary and secondary packaging.
Using either Post-Consumer or Pre-Consumer Regrind (PCR) materials is one approach that can potentially make a positive difference. This involves using recycled plastic from end users and/or waste from the production process to create new packaging systems.
This article will explore the growing use of PCR in pharmaceutical packaging, its benefits and challenges, as well as discuss why a demand-led, responsible and pragmatic approach is necessary.
The PCR market is being driven by growing consumer awareness about environmental issues and the increasing rise in petroleum prices. This is driving a surge in demand for PCR globally, with many businesses eager to embrace this innovation.
The benefits of PCR make it even more attractive, despite its sustainability benefits like reducing waste, lowering the carbon footprint of manufacturing and promoting a circular economy. For example, PCR reduces manufacturer costs as fewer, more expensive, virgin materials are needed in production.
Furthermore, manufacturing cost-cutting will trickle down and benefit healthcare services. For example, according to research conducted by The London School of Economics, the costs of expensive new drugs threaten the financial sustainability of the NHS with spending on branded medicines increasing by over five percent annually.
This, in conjunction with earning favour with environmentally concerned customers, will benefit a business’ brand, earning them a reputation for commitment to building long-term sustainability and prioritising customers’ needs.
But necessary and stringent regulations within pharma mean virgin plastic cannot be ruled out, owing to the need to safeguard patient safety and medicine integrity. But PCR provides a way for the pharmaceutical industry to reduce and address its contribution to the plastics crisis the world finds itself in.
As the adoption of PCR gains momentum, it is essential to acknowledge that sustainable practices go beyond raw materials alone. Holistic sustainability strategies encompass innovative design, responsible consumption and recycling programs.
In the same breath, consumers and other stakeholders must understand that PCR is not a silver bullet for solving plastic pollution. Complexities unique to the pharmaceutical industry limit its scope…
While other industries enjoy the freedom of prioritising design, aesthetics and sustainability in their packaging, the pharmaceutical industry must maintain health and safety standards as the utmost priority.
This presents an ever-present challenge for the pharmaceutical packaging industry. PCR-derived packaging has many limitations including compromised quality, process inconsistencies, application limitations and contamination, all inhibiting its viability as a universally suitable packaging solution.
When applied to pharmaceuticals, this potential lack of ‘purity’ in PCR means the background of the material is undetermined or traceable. This uncertainty limits use cases for the product, making it unsuitable for various pharmaceutical products such as those that are injected into the bloodstream.
Although PCR materials are a trending solution to the plastics crisis, evidenced by the growing demand for them across packaging industries, supply shortages are a thorn in the side of manufacturers.
The cause of this shortage might be attributed to the fact that many people are ignorant of how to properly recycle plastics in the first instance, including pharmaceutical packaging. Every week, 1.85 billion pieces of plastic packaging are thrown away, not recycled, in the UK.
Furthermore, contamination of recyclable plastics renders the waste useless as it cannot be used to create PCR. Contaminants come in the form of food scraps and oils which have not been adequately removed before consumers recycle them. In a modern time-starved society plagued by a culture of convenience and instant satisfaction, taking the time to wash out packaging waste before recycling is not a priority.
Taking a holistic approach to sustainability starts with materials being selected based on how much of an impact they have on the environment and how easily they can be reused or recycled into new products with as little waste as possible. This must be factored in from the very beginning.
The pharmaceutical industry has a role to play in addressing the shortage of PCR and supporting a pipeline for future use and production of PCR-derived packaging. Pharmaceutical packaging is recyclable in many instances, but communication on where and how to recycle medicine packaging remains limited.
Raising awareness in this area will promote the correct recycling of pharmaceutical packaging, bolstering the supply of PCR and, in turn, promoting the manufacture and use of PCR products across the industry.
Stakeholder investment and participation in recycling programs present a further commitment to sustainability, positively enhancing consumer sentiment towards the industry.
Lastly, the pharmaceutical industry can ‘clean up’ its act by following a cyclical design process which factors sustainability into design throughout, minimising material wastage and product weight. In turn, this reduces the carbon footprint of products, prioritising efficiency in production and continuously taking part in and supporting research and development.