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When medical device packaging engineers research customer needs during “voice of the customer” studies, they don’t necessarily ask, “How’s this package going to be disposed of?” explains Nicholas Packet, a packaging engineer and MDM specialist for DuPont. But he’d like that to change.
“My hope is that engineers start to consider the recyclability of their flexible packaging designs and materials,” he told MD+DI. “This may not be the top priority on new products, but as part of their sustaining engineering projects, I hope it encourages them to evaluate their packaging materials, consider its recyclability, and impact the materials may have on the consistency of the waste stream.”
Packet will be speaking about medical packaging recycling during the upcoming HealthPack presentation, “Flexible Packaging Material: Challenges and Opportunities for Recycling.” He and co-speaker Tristan Steichen, project manager for the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, will share the results of a study on flexible plastic packaging materials conducted by HPRC and the University of Massachusetts–Lowell.
Packet said there does “seem to be more efforts and activities taking place at healthcare facilities, hospitals, and MDMs to recycle their healthcare plastics. I think this is being driven by a number of factors—awareness, disposal costs, and organizations simply wanting to find another place for this plastic waste than the landfill. I think people are starting to recognize that healthcare plastics, many of which are virgin materials, can have value in a secondary life.”
But as expected, end-of-life considerations such as recycling and disposal aren’t the first considerations for packaging engineers. “Medical device packaging engineers face a number of different requirement and expectations for their package design. Maintaining the products’ protection, sterile integrity, and product use rise to the top of the list,” said Packet. “I think one of the challenges is how engineers can account for a requirement that helps facilitate the recyclability of their packaging and balance this with their other requirements so it doesn’t fall to the bottom of the list.”
Package optimization has been an ongoing trend for some time. “Engineers are continuing to drive package size reductions, material consolidation, and the redesign of old packages that may be inefficient or use undesirable or materials of concern,” said Packet.
But engineers are also pretty conservative when it comes to material selection. “Packaging engineers working in new product development tend to be more risk adverse, so they gravitate to existing materials that have a proven track record and passed previous validations,” he said.
HPRC does offer suggestions for engineers with its “Design Guidance: Best Practices for Recyclable Products and Packaging.” It’s hard to say how much of an impact such guidance has had, but Packet says that “the council, often through our healthcare advisory board members, bring insights and awareness to things that are not being considered when it comes to the selection and use of plastic packaging materials.”
The study results Packet and Steichen will share at HealthPack could offer further insight. “Engineers probably make assumptions based on their own consumer experiences and how we go about disposing the plastic waste we generate, which in many cases is that rigid plastics can be recycled but flexible packaging like shopping and bread bags can’t go into your municipal recycling stream,” Packet said. “I feel this same notion holds true with how they expect and is often the reality of how hospitals handle medical packaging waste. Rigid trays are more likely to be recycled if there is a collection process set up, but flexible packages are not accepted and go to the landfill or incineration because many recyclers don’t accept flexible materials.
“This is where I see the importance and impact that the flexible packaging recycling study will have on the industry,” he continued. “Until this point, we didn’t really have a sound set of data or experience recycling these flexible and mixed materials. The study with UPENN in 2014 was a great initial set of data and now with the UMASS study completed we have a good idea on how the material will process, what its attributes will be as a second life material, and what some of the challenges will be.”
Packet said that “one of the most interesting parts of this study is the work and collaborative efforts that went into the collection process of accumulating the material for this study. I think packaging engineers are always interested in their end-use customers, and the work that was done with our healthcare advisory board and hospitals that participated in the study will bring some unique insights.”
He didn’t want to give too much away before the presentation, but he did say that researchers “didn’t see significant issues with material impurities, but flexible packages are often made up of multiple materials and multilayer films, which present some unpredictability in terms of material consistency entering the waste stream. I realize this isn’t going to be solved overnight and will always be a challenge with flexible packaging, but if engineers work to develop packages that are made of homogeneous materials, it will bring more consistency and potential value to this second life material stream.”
HealthPack attendees will also be given a “glimpse at what different types of packaging makes up the flexible waste stream and see some state-of-the-art recycling equipment,” he added. “And if you’re technical and like data, we’ll share the performance characteristics of the recycled material.”
Packet hopes the presentation will also get engineers “to start thinking about the circular economy. These [recycled] materials would not be used for product-contacting primary packaging, but I hope it inspires them to think about these second-life materials and where they may able to be used in their process or operations. Finding end-use applications is one of the keys to the success of the healthcare plastic flexible packaging recycling stream.”