Green packaging: A huge responsibility

As the world can't afford another Great Pacific Dump, the pharma industry needs to be responsible enough with its packaging methods and tools

Packaging – one of the crucial aspects of the pharma industry – has been witnessing changes over years. With time, the demand for innovative packaging has risen, including innovative designs, security features, track and trace features, and so on and so forth. Currently, there are a number of sustainable packaging methods like metal tins, paper board packaging, HDPE and PP recyclable bottles that are being used in pharma companies.

A survey conducted by Edelman in 2020 had revealed that 88 per cent of investors believe that companies that prioritise Environment, Social and Government (ESG) initiatives represent better opportunities for long-term returns than companies that don’t.

One of the emerging trends that intends to create an impact on the industry at the moment is green packaging – a sustainable mode that holds the potential to transform the future of pharma packaging.

Green packaging or sustainable packaging is using manufacturing techniques and packaging materials which reduce harmful impacts of packaging on environment, and also minimise the adverse impact on ecology and economy. “From pharma packaging perspective, it is a huge responsibility rather than demand,” emphasised R Chandi Prasad, Head, Packaging Development, Aurobindo Pharma.

He also said, “Global pharma packaging market size was valued at $117.2 billion in 2021, and is expected to expand at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 9.5 per cent from 2021 to 2030. The two dominating factors that are influencing pharma packaging, apart from compliance with regulatory requirements for the last five years, are sustainability and user-centricity. User can be a patient, administrator or pharmacist. Sustainability is the major factor influencing sales of medicines as modern-day healthcare professional and individual customer demands convenient as well as sustainable product and packaging.”

Regarding the usage of biodegradable plastic for pharma packaging, he said it is inevitable that plastics dominate pharma packaging as biodegradable plastics are not suitable for pharma products due to extended shelf-life of 24-to-48 months and beyond, compared to FMCG, which is less than 60-90 days. “Manufacturers are associating with government and non-government organisations to collect pharma packaging for their disposal, segregation and recycling,” he notified.

The growing awareness among consumers regarding sustainable packaging and the strict ban on the usage of single-use plastics are the major factors fuelling the demand for green packaging, mentioned Saransh Chaudhary, Chief Executive Officer, Venus Medicine Research Centre. “Going by the estimates of industry experts, sustainable solutions account for 10-25 per cent of the total primary pharma packaging. Many companies are developing novel sustainable packaging solutions like plant-based packaging that uses corn starch, sugarcane and cassava. The idea is to reduce the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste generated every year by the pharma industry, at least half of which includes single-use plastic,” he said.

Last April, at a conference – PPL Conclave 2021 – held by Express Pharma, Professor Pierre Pienaar, President, World Packaging Organisation, had said, “Packaging is necessary. We can’t do without it. But, it’s what we do with the packaging after we have used the contents. That is what is important, and in what way can we reduce the impact on our natural resources. The World Packaging Organization sees a future without waste. Those who are producing the packaging, must take responsibility of recovery and recycling. The world can’t afford another Great Pacific Dump.”

All that is happening

Aurobindo Pharma is at the forefront of implementing green sustainable packaging solutions that are being followed by other big players in India. Apart from it, Cytvia, a global lifescience company, has also begun to remove unnecessary plastic packaging from its supply chain, as part of its sustainable growth strategy, among other improvements.

Speaking in this regard, Raghavendra Goud Vaggu, General Manager, Cytiva South Asia, said, “By streamlining shipments to customers, the company expects to save about 25 tonnes of plastic per year, while also lowering its CO2 footprint. In addition, the company is working in Sweden on a water conservation project.”

According to Prasad, in primary packaging, Aurobindo Pharma implemented reduction of bottle sizes, removal of filler (cotton/rayon/polyester coils), downsizing of wall thickness of bottles and forming materials of blisters, thermoform blisters in place of 3/4 layers of coldform blisters which reduces pack size by 60 per cent and material consumption by 80 per cent. In secondary packaging, the company replaced physical medication guides with electronic copy in agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and pharmacists providing print of electronic copy, as per patient demand.

Elimination of carton and reduction of leaflets by 90 per cent for tender orders of ARVs with regulatory permission saved 850 tonnes of paper annually, besides supply chain challenges. Aurobindo Pharma also followed removal of shrink packing for bottles and cartons and replacing with banding for few products, as per market need and elimination of intermediate packaging.

“Another major project is shipping products to the US by stuffing of shippers in ocean containers with removal of wooden pallets. This resulted in transportation of 50 per cent more in a container saving one out of three. This reduces carbon footprint as 70 per cent are refrigerated containers using CFCs and HFCs; also saving of 35 tonnes of packaging materials such as plastic sheets, carry straps, corner boards and 15 tonnes of stretch wrapping material,” Prasad further informed.

Similar to Aurobindo Pharma and Cytvia, Venus Remedies has also taken some steps towards sustainable packaging. It has replaced single-use plastic trays with paper trays for ampoule packaging, and has started using eco-friendly UV-coated cartons instead of laminated ones.

“We have also started implementing biodegradable shrink films for shrink packag ing. The industry is still struggling to find a sustainable alternative to blister packaging. The availability of sustainable packaging solutions from plant origin is limited. The cost of the new solutions right now is prohibitively high in some cases, which comes to 50 per cent more than the solutions currently in use. However, increased adoption across all sectors will bring down the costs,” suggested Chaudhary.

A few contract manufacturing companies are also working in the direction of opting environment-friendly packaging methods. Speaking in this regard, Yashna Garg, Chief Marketing Officer, ZeoNutra, Zeon Lifesciences, stated that choosing earth-friendly packaging supplies and processes will go a long way in minimising the waste and pollution that end up in landfills and oceans. Her company is working on sustainable packaging closely with its pharma packaging vendors, and trying to nullify hazardous plastics in the industry.

While some industry stakeholders are adopting the sustainable packaging methods, there are others who hold a different view and believe that the process of sustainable packaging causes more harm to the environment.

Prabir Das, Head, Packaging Tech Services, OSD, Mylan Laboratories, stressed, “Many people think that cellulose or paper-based materials are better over plastics. However, we need to remember that we destroy more greens to get cellulose or paper and use more energy and resources to convert them in usable form. Product safety and security is also compromised with such materials. Glass, metal and similar alternatives are often not favourable, considering technological advancement and change in lifestyle of people. Composite materials are often considered difficult to recycle, reform and reuse. So, a balance is required while choosing an alternative.”

He further advised, “Packaging design, from primary to tertiary, followed by palletization needs to be optimised, so that product per unit volume is maximum. Operations should be simple and linear, so that process cycle time is minimum. Wherever feasible, elimination of non-essential component like printed carton for each single unit, and digitisation of product/patient information leaflet are few examples of reduced and simplified linear operation. Similarly, wherever feasible, direct printing on shippers/cases can be adopted instead of using an additional printed label and its application. Use of composite materials needs to be minimised as those are often neither recyclable nor decomposable.”

Phasing out plastic: Easier said than done

In line with the clarion call given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to phase out single-use plastic by 2022 in view of the adverse impact of littered plastic on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, which prohibits identified single-use plastic items with low utility and high littering potential by 2022. Prior to it, various studies had predicted that plastic-based packaging would be phased out by 2020. The goal, though, has not been achieved yet since the industry is still not able to afford sustainable packaging completely.

Agreeing somewhat with Das, Garg lamented that there should be a concrete alternate source, so that plastic-based packaging can be phased out. “Packaging industries are working hard on the easy source of green packaging at a reasonable cost. The Indian Institute of Packaging has been working on it for a long time,” she revealed.

In line with the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, Chaudhary stated, “The manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and single-use plastic commodities, including polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, will be prohibited with effect from 1st July this year, thus marking a significant step in dealing with the environmental threat posed by non-biodegradable materials. The adoption of sustainable packaging leaves a lot to be desired largely because of lack of awareness among small and medium scale industries and low volumes that lead to higher costs. Bringing down the cost of packaging to the same level as plastic packaging, if not lower, holds the key to facilitating this transition.”

As per Prasad, usage of plastic-based packaging material in pharma industry is inevitable. “In fact, usage of plastics increased over the last decade replacing glass and metal for packaging of oral dosage forms, parenterals and semi-solids. The positive side of this is these plastic materials are easily recyclable and can be used for many applications except food packaging. Plastics are not dangerous to the environment, if properly used, disposed and recycled. However, single-use plastics need to be banned strictly, paper-based packaging should be used for food products, especially take away and online delivery, which is rampant now,” he highlighted.

Predicting the future

While pharma experts and stakeholders are constantly looking out for innovation, they also tend to take a peek into the future trends that might help them in implementing novel ways by using upgraded technologies for adding value to, and revolutionise the packaging segment.

“From user industry perspective, I strongly believe that future belongs to those who innovate on principles such as think beyond, make simple and value addition. With precise design, efficient strategy, applying advanced technology, automation and optimisation throughout supply chain, green packaging should be the mark of your brand. Personal medication, in future, can minimise packaging in pharma sector as it is manufactured, delivered to patient directly for immediate usage which reduces shelf-life drastically. Development of biodegradable plastics for pharma packaging, which can sustain product quality for longer periods of 24-to-36 months will immensely contribute to green packaging. As an individual, I have huge responsibility to save our planet for future generations to live more safely and healthily and committed to follow green measures and use only green packaging. Sustainability should be taught from secondary education level and engage them in green activities with reward and award.”

Chaudhary predicts that the trend of biodegradable packaging will see a tremendous growth in the next decade. “Over the next 10 years, the trend of biodegradable packaging will grow like never before. The major factor that will shape the future of pharmaceutical packaging on sustainable lines is the need for alternative solutions that minimise the adverse impact on the environment. The alarming increase in pollution levels has accelerated the process of climate change and global warming, as evident by the rising temperatures and odd weather patterns across the globe. The increased awareness about this looming threat and the strong concordance between the government and the industry on curbing plastic waste through collaborative efforts and innovative solutions is making a big difference,” he said.

Garg put emphasis on converting plans into actions. “Replacing virgin plastic with more sustainable materials is highly possible and highly effective in the next 10 years. We’re already on the road to progress and putting plans into action. We are ready to face the challenges and do our part in ensuring optimal health for every living being and providing a safer future for the planet,” she said.

While it is indeed essential for the industry experts and stakeholders to look for green packaging methods, saving our natural resources is also crucial as our future generations await a healthy and rich environment to breathe.

Aurobindo PharmaCytviaESG initiativesgreat pacific dumpgreen packagingpharma packagingPrabir DasProfessor Pierre PienaarR Chandi PrasadVenus Remedies
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  • Jobin Reddy

    Thanks for highlighting the importance of green packaging in the pharmaceutical industry. As consumers become more aware of the impact of packaging on the environment, it’s crucial for companies to take responsibility and make changes towards sustainable practices. It’s great to see that some companies are already taking steps towards eco-friendly packaging, but there is still a long way to go. I hope that more companies will follow suit and prioritize the use of recyclable and biodegradable materials in their packaging. Together, we can make a positive impact on the planet.