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In Pursuit of More Sustainable Packaging Solutions

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Medical device companies can make a difference when it comes to sustainability, according to a senior packaging engineer at Medtronic who spoke during Virtual Engineering Week.

In the Virtual Engineering Week session, “How to Make Medical Packaging More Sustainable,” Jennifer Griffin, senior packaging engineer at Medtronic, shared her recent visit to a tranquil fishing village along the Atlantic in Massachusetts. She spoke of noticing the still waters, when suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by a loud, rapid, pinging noise.

It was a seagull in a white rowboat, playing with a piece of plastic trash, picking it up in his beak and dropping it onto the hard surface of the boat and into the water. “He was purposely dropping it into the water and then retrieving it,” Griffin said. “I had never seen this behavior before. This looked like a child playing with a toy.

“For me, that was a really sad reminder of our impact on the natural world,” she said.

Medical device companies can make a difference when it comes to sustainability, but there is some work to do. Griffin reported that only 33% of healthcare companies on the S&P 500 publish sustainability reports, compared with 82% of all companies of the S&P 500. “It really demonstrates where our whole med device industry is lagging in this arena,” Griffin said.

Griffin shared in her presentation several ways in which Medtronic is making packaging more sustainable. Her first example was how the company funds research at the Center for Bioplastics and Biocomposites (CB2), which is a group of researchers from four universities, she noted. “The effort here is to generate renewable resources instead of using fossil fuels,” she said.

Medtronic also participates in industry groups to promote initiatives, such as the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, she said. The council is working toward an economically viable solution to divert plastics away from landfills, including plastic used in secondary packaging that protects products without coming into contact with them.

“We're also buying sustainable packaging,” she said, citing an example of an insulin pump for diabetes patients. The trays are made with biodegradable and compostable packaging materials.

“We've also created a sustainable packaging working group,” Griffin said. It is a volunteer team of packaging engineers, along with environmental health and safety staff from each of the Medtronic businesses. The group champions efforts to integrate environmental factors into the package development process and advocates for environmentally sustainable, customer-focused packaging solutions.

Medtronic has an annual EHS sustainability award, Griffin said. If her audience members didn’t have such an award at their company, Griffin reminded them that the Institute of Packaging Professionals hosts the yearly Ameristar Award, which has a category for sustainable packaging. “So that might be a place if you have a package that you are proud of.”

Griffin shared an example of how Medtronic redesigned existing packages to reduce weight and size. The improvements included removing an excess layer of barrier plastic and decreasing the size of the product cartons. “It wasn't just a win for us in terms of reducing material and shipping sterilization costs, but also a win [for] healthcare facilities in terms of storage.” It had another surprise benefit. She related that she learned on a visit to several hospitals that department managers said that they were buying this product because it had the smallest package of all its competitors.

Other ways she said Medtronic is moving toward sustainability in packaging are eliminating literature where possible and supporting environmental purchasing programs developed by their customers.

Griffin suggested her audience could make an impact at their companies by not just focusing on whether they pass design verification, but also by conducting major barrier testing at the design concept phase to eliminate over packaging.

Also, “the next opportunity is cost reductions,” Griffin said. “One thing I feel strongly about is changing to local suppliers. The reduction in fossil fuel use by reducing transport, whether by truck or plane, and then the associated reduction in greenhouse gases, can really add up.”

Griffin noted that compliance projects to get packaging up to the state of the art sometimes lead to redesign. “That affords us a great opportunity for source reduction,” she said.

She reminded her audience to use ASTM D7611 plastic resin coding symbols to make sure clinicians know what they can recycle.

And lastly, she encouraged the use of plant-based materials. “That's a very exciting field still in progress. But there are things you can do today,” she said. “Any package layer that's not direct product contacting, you have the opportunity to use recycled content. Stretch film. Palletization. Stretch wrap. Corrugated board components, including shipping containers. Are we specifying these with recycled content in our specs? We can be.”

For those interested in getting more involved, Griffin invited them to join the sustainability subcommittee of the Medical Device Packaging Technical Committee of the Institute of Packaging Professionals. She noted that the subcommittee is currently on hiatus, but it could be restarted. She urged anyone interested to contact her for more information.

She also recommended people reach out to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition for more information. “This group has created courses that are available on-demand, online, on all these different sustainability topics related to packaging,” she said.

Griffin ended her talk by inviting the audience back to the harbor scene. “Let's minimize our impact on the environment,” she said. “When the seagulls seem to be saying ‘you can make a difference,’ I'm counting on you.”

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