Packaging in the pharmaceutical industry has a lot to contend with. Product protection is perhaps the most obvious, as it plays an intrinsic role in maintaining product efficacy and shelf life, while supporting patient adherence.
Then there are provisions of tamper evidence, child safety and anti-counterfeit mechanisms, and space for serialisation—all in addition to branding and marketing to convey product integrity and patient welfare.
And if these elements aren’t enough of a challenge within the industry, creating environmentally sustainable packaging brings additional complexity—more so if the product is a drug delivery device. But pharma brands have an important opportunity to tackle their pursuit of sustainable packaging without stripping away their primary and most essential requirements.
Meeting the requirements of environmental sustainability targets will not come cheaply. However, the on-cost of adopting a more sustainable solution may equate to a small fraction of the overall cost per unit of many pharmaceutical products.
Meeting or exceeding sustainability requirements may result in a much stronger connection to the hearts and minds of customers and end users—a competitive advantage and reputation that could be a lasting factor, offsetting those cost increases.
Cardboard cartons are a mainstay of pharma packaging; but the carton board is almost always a white coated stock and often virgin board. This is likely a purposeful approach to emphasise the purity, quality, and efficacy of the product.
Sustainable pack designs are often viewed by the consumer as having a less appealing appearance, or one that’s more often associated with natural products, which are considered less desirable for drug applications. However, effective branding and print application is an opportunity to differentiate, and to gain a competitive advantage through taking an obviously sustainable stance.
For blister packs, the biggest opportunity for sustainability is arguably also the biggest challenge. While blister packs are typically protected by a secondary carton board box, the blister pack itself plays a critical role in maintaining product efficacy, and significant testing goes into ensuring that the lidding films and trays will retain effectiveness throughout its shelf life—making the use of biodegradable materials a gruelling pursuit.
But there have been significant innovations in the last several years toward more sustainable blister packaging, including paper-only or PVC-free materials, which have made sustainable blister packs seemingly more attainable for the future.
For products that require cool storage or extra protection, alternatives to polystyrene are also emerging. Newly implemented in bicycle helmets, Polyamide 11 is a polystyrene alternative material derived from 100% renewable castor beans. It is produced via 3D printing, which further optimises the material use and eliminates the need for storing empty units until the requirement exists.
Mushroom packaging is another alternative that offers customisable and compostable product protection with a ‘cradle to cradle’ circular approach. This material can be grown, used, and broken down in compost in less than 55 days.
Supply chain efficiencies should also be assessed as simple changes can have a significant impact. Lightweighting is an obvious target for greater sustainability for pharmaceutical bottles and pots, but there are limits to contend with, such as glass bottle drop resistance. The packaging around the vessel would also require a size reduction to prevent sustainable inefficiencies.
Over-the-counter products are also culprits to supply chain inefficiencies as pack size is often dictated by the market, resulting in packaging—and thereby containers, trucks and warehouses—being filled with air simply to remain competitive in grabbing the consumer’s attention. Reducing packaging and making more efficient sizing can reduce carbon emissions and costs for transport as well as cut overall waste.
While prescription drug labels are often small and a single colour, they must be visible for the entire product lifecycle and at every touchpoint, including packaging production, product disposal, safety, identification, and storage. This means sustainable solutions such as wash-off adhesives and linerless labels are less appropriate due to product integrity and print volume.
Digital print is a solution that offers sustainability improvements without risk—particularly for large scale label print runs where the typical cost increase would be less impactful.
Over-the-counter drug products are typically larger and more colourful, but offer a lot of potential for ink rationalisation. This is particularly true across a brand portfolio where a colour audit could ensure that colour application and strategy are optimised to ensure spot colours are minimised, unnecessary inks are eliminated, and CMYK is favoured.
Additionally, Extended Colour Gamut can offer opportunities to combine lower volume SKUs on the same plates as higher volume SKUs, thereby bringing sustainability benefits through reductions in plate making and print press wash-ups, as well as standardising the inks used. There may also be opportunities to optimise OTC labels by redesigning the content and layout with the intent of reformatting to reduce substrates.
Additionally, while sustainable substrates could bring challenges to print quality due to the nature of uncoated materials impacting colour and ink saturation, those challenges can be addressed and managed, ultimately creating an overtly sustainable approach as a competitive advantage.
Pharma brands must begin looking toward digital innovations to pursue sustainability goals. One example pertains to the Patient Information Leaflet—or ‘PIL’. According to UK-based iDi Pac, there 50-70 billion PILs supplied annually. If these were all the size of an A4 piece of paper, this equates to:
• 150,000 tonnes of paper annually
• 96,000 tonnes of CO2 produced
• 4.48 million trees required to absorb the CO2 generated
Based on research shared in an article by Scots Public Health, PILs didn’t meet the basic requirements of providing patient understanding. Of course, the pharmaceutical industry needs to comply with regulations, but it would benefit the brands, consumers, and the environment to make them more sustainable, and the potential lies heavily in amplifying a connected experience.
Digital codes in the form of overt QR codes or covert technologies such as Digimarc could link to region-specific, pre-translated content from the PIL—and this content could be more detailed, descriptive, and localised. It could even provide video for the hearing-impaired, audio for the visually impaired, and educational information about recycling the item based on local regulations. This mutually beneficial solution should drive pharma brands to work with regulatory bodies to permit and encourage this change.
The prescription packaging itself could also benefit from a digital transformation. The packs are often only printed with as few as three colours, and frequently carry the same designs regionally or globally, with only market-specific variations in trademarked names, pack language and labelling. But because the volumes required in certain markets is so low, pharma companies must sometimes over-order just to hit MOQs, which leads to excess printed stock being wasted.
Instead, a systemised and centralised approach to small volume SKUs could lead to significant waste reduction. The artwork brief and print ordering could be streamlined into a seamless, touchless single point of entry system where the artwork development is automated and sent straight to print based on pre-approved templates and content.
The pharmaceutical industry could lead the way in sharing sustainability wins in an ‘open source’ approach. The potential to make strides in Environmental Sustainability in adopting this approach would not only benefit the industry as a whole, but would also empower their consumers to do more despite the medication they need to take arriving in a particular format.
Like most other multi-national blue-chip companies, pharma companies are signed up to recyclability and reusability commitments by 2025 and 2030 - the difference, though, is that for pharma this must come with the caveat of “where quality & safety permit”. Whilst this means that the challenges toward reaching sustainability in pharma are bigger and require deeper investigation, they are not insurmountable.
About Richard Gearing
Rich has spent nineteen years working in packaging-related roles spanning FMCG/CPG, pharma, food & beverage and retail, with a recent focus on Sustainability and SGK's global rebrand. As a member of SGK's Consulting group, his work involves the effective onboarding of new SGK customers, identifying the potential to simplify client processes and ways of working, finding ways to amplify efficiency and speed-to-market and generally looking for opportunities to 'do stuff better'. Rich is a certified change management practitioner.