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Sustainable Packaging Makes Its Move into the Medtech Industry

A perceived enemy of the environment, plastic packaging is on the road to redemption

SPECIAL FEATURE: GREEN PACKAGING

Sustainable Packaging Makes Its Move into the Medtech Industry
A perceived enemy of the environment, plastic packaging is on the road to redemption
Shana Leonard

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With each new packaging product, Alcan Packaging employs its Alcan Sustainability and Stewardship Evaluation Tool (ASSET) in order to analyze not only the manufacture of the package, but also its in-use and end-of-life environments.
When it comes to plastic packaging, environmentalists wish it was here today, gone tomorrow. But change doesn't come so easy for medical device manufacturers. Cost concerns, regulatory obstacles, and a lack of a vocal demand for sustainable packaging have factored into a slow-moving shift to more-sustainable materials. And, the fact of the matter is, for some applications, conventional plastics simply can't be beat right now in terms of the properties and protection they offer.

"The packaging industry is tricky because packaging is very visible and a lot of people think of packaging as bad [for the environment]," observes Nina Goodrich, director, Sustainnovation, at Alcan Packaging (Kirkland, QC, Canada; www.globalpharma.alcanpackaging.com). Yet despite its reputation, plastic medical device packaging is becoming more sustainable every day as packagers attempt to offset the damage done by materials by using environmentally friendly processes and efforts in waste reduction.

Evaluating the Challenges

Sustainable packaging is the fastest-growing segment of the global packaging industry and stands to corner 32% of the total market by 2014, predicts Pike Research, a market research and consulting firm. In its study, "Sustainable Packaging," the company also forecasts that plastic-based packaging, which represents 35% of packaging materials employed, will represent the fastest-growing sector.

But while the cosmetic, beauty, and food industries, for example, have been quick to embrace environmentally friendly packaging, the healthcare market has not been quite so gung-ho. Unlike with consumer products, customers have not yet put substantial pressure on the medical device industry to go green. And without the impetus for change in the form of customer demand, the industry has been reluctant to make the switch to sustainable packaging.

A recent poll taken by MPMN's sister publication, Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News (PMPN), demonstrates this industrywide ambivalence. About half of the respondents expected that at least 25% of their projects would be augmented in the next five years to incorporate more-sustainable solutions; however, 41.3% responded that less than 25% would change.

Some reticence to integrate sustainable packaging on the part of medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers stems from the hassle of regulatory red tape. "Because of the regulatory hurdles that they internally have to deal with, [OEMs] will frequently go back to the same playbook and use the same materials so they can much more readily validate those new packaging configurations," says Eric Carlson, a packaging engineer for Adalis Corp. (Vancouver, WA; www.adalispackaging.com), which specializes in new package design and cost reduction.

Cost concerns also appear to be a culprit in encouraging OEMs to stay the packaging course. Especially in this economy, cost often trumps the environment in terms of priorities. This mentality is evidenced by the answers to another question from the PMPN poll. Respondents were asked about replacing polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which has drawn fire from such environmental groups as Greenpeace, in their packaging. More than half of respondents (55.2%) reported that they were willing to replace PVC only if the new material's cost was lower than or equal to that of PVC.

Recycling Efforts

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Rollprint's Allegro line of peelable polyester sealants for medical device packaging applications is recyclable.
Although the cost of materials is a major factor, some manufacturers are willing to explore more-sustainable options. Recyclable plastic packaging, for one, is garnering increasing interest, according to Dhuanne Dodrill, president of Rollprint Packaging Products Inc. (Addison, IL; www.rollprint.com). She states that customers are seeking all-polyester materials for device packaging that can not only be recycled, but can also provide a high barrier and the ability to seal or peel to itself or a rigid tray. For customers looking for materials that can be recycled in the existing waste stream, Rollprint offers its peelable Allegro and weld-sealed Forte brands of polyester sealants for polyester trays that require clear lidding and a barrier.

Contrary to popular belief, a lot of plastic packaging is actually recyclable. And the green delay isn't necessarily on the part of packagers and OEMs. "If the product is not temperature-sensitive, medical device packaging is, for the most part, composed of materials that are easily recycled," Carlson muses. "The problem is that the end-user in the hospital is not usually set up to move those materials into a recycling waste stream."

Goodrich agrees, noting that a lot of Alcan Packaging's flexible packaging is already recyclable. However, the company does not label it as such because the infrastructure does not exist in hospitals and the community to recycle the materials employed in flexible packaging, she says. This could change, however. Carlson notes that hospitals are beginning to adopt lean Six Sigma principles. These forward-thinking types of institutions, he says, could pioneer plastic recycling programs.

In the meantime, companies like Alcan Packaging are trying to get the ball rolling. "We are working on new technologies that allow for flexible packaging recycling," Goodrich notes. "That would be the ability to comingle a bunch of flexible packages and semirigid packages and take them back to some basic precursor chemical building blocks that can then be reused in creation of new packaging."

Reducing the Impact

New materials are not the only way in which packaging can promote sustainability. Reduction is the key--not just in waste output, but in terms of reducing package sizes and overall carbon footprint.

Taking measures to help OEMs green their supply chains, as well as to fulfill their own company's sustainability goals, many packaging companies have made significant changes to in-house operations. Rollprint, for example, has implemented a more-efficient lighting system in its plant and is focused on reducing energy use. The company is also actively involved in recycling and tracks metrics related to the ratio of material recycled to what is sent to the landfill, according to Dodrill. Likewise, sustainability efforts in Alcan Packaging's facilities, notes Goodrich, have centered on annual waste reduction, solvent recovery, reuse and recycling programs, and energy initiatives.

Renewable energy, an option that Alcan Packaging is exploring for the future, could help to reduce overall carbon footprints. "If we put renewable energy in a plant that makes a package for a medical device, the package itself hasn't changed at all, but the footprint of that package has changed because the energy that is going into manufacturing is now renewable energy," Goodrich explains.

Examining a product's overall life cycle--and not just the materials used--is central to Alcan Packaging's sustainability philosophy. With each new product, the company employs its Alcan Sustainability and Stewardship Evaluation Tool (ASSET) in order to analyze not only the manufacture of the package, but also its in-use and end-of-life environments, according to Goodrich. "The approach we've taken is to help people understand the overall life cycle of the product--not just the package, but the product that's inside it," she adds. "In many instances, the [carbon] footprint of the product is much more significant than the footprint of the package."

One of the best ways to lessen a package's carbon footprint, however, is simply by trimming the fat and downgauging. "When you [remove] packaging material, whether you change to a more sustainable material or not, you're reducing the waste stream," Carlson says. "Customers that we deal with are primarily not asking for sustainable materials, but a more-sustainable supply chain, and that just means less material all the way around."

Material reduction was a serendipitous outcome of the manufacture of a new packaging product for Rollprint. Spurred by FDA skepticism surrounding the potential of solvents from the overwrap to permeate into blow-fill-seal unit-dose vials for inhalation therapy, Rollprint developed solvent-free Triad. Although designed for safety purposes, the overwrap is environmentally friendly owing to the elimination of solvents and their associated emissions and controls, according to Dodrill. And it reduces material use. "By changing the manufacturing process, we significantly reduced the amount of materials that are needed to create the product--about a 17% by-weight reduction from the traditional process from making the material," she adds.

And less material and smaller packages typically translate into cost-effectiveness. "Many of the things we do to improve sustainability are also cost reductions, so it is extremely attractive for people to move in that direction, especially in this economy," Dodrill adds.

Copyright ©2009 Medical Product Manufacturing News
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