Packagers Pursue Sustainability

Nonpharmaceutical manufacturers find ways to make environmentally sound packaging.
Oct 02, 2007
Volume 31, Issue 10

Hallie Forcinio
Everyone is talking about sustainable packaging today. Wal-Mart Stores (Bentonville, AR) wants it. Major retailers in the United Kingdom have committed to using it.

On the surface, sustainable packaging seems to be a simple concept. In reality, it's incredibly difficult to determine whether Package A is more sustainable than Package B. To further complicate matters, sustainable packaging is a moving target. What's considered most sustainable today might not be tomorrow. In recognition of this fact and to encourage continuous improvement, Wal-Mart's Packaging Scorecard rates packages against others in the same product category. As a result, the company with the best score in the category drops in the standings as soon as a competitor introduces a package that scores better.

Although sustainability probably comes after stability, compliance, tamper-evidence, child-resistance and traceability considerations when designing and sourcing pharmaceutical packaging, improving sustainability offers the potential of significant cost savings and other benefits.

A look at what other industries are doing to improve the sustainability of their packaging can provide a number of ideas for pharmaceutical manufacturers to consider.

Defining sustainable packaging

When thinking about sustainable packaging, it's helpful to look at a definition. The definition considered by many stakeholders to be the standard was crafted by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC, Charlottesburg, VA,). It combines environmental, social, and economic factors. It states sustainable packaging:

  • Is beneficial, safe, and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle
  • Meets market criteria for performance and cost
  • Is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy
  • Maximizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials
  • Is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • Is made from materials that are healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios
  • Is physically designed to optimize materials and energy
  • Is effectively recovered and used in biological or industrial cradle-to-cradle cycles.


Sustainable packaging requires a life-cycle approach that compares package designs holistically by considering cradle-to-grave impacts.

"It's important to ask the right questions," noted Nina Goodrich, director of Innovation for Alcan Global Pharmaceutical Packaging (Montreal, QC, Canada) during a presentation at Interphex 2007. "A lot of people focus on one item rather than a broader approach. What's appropriate in one place may not be right in another," she said. For example, "if a material is recyclable, but not being recycled in a country, it may not be the most environmentally sound choice."

Although a holistic approach is needed to select the most sustainable package for the circumstances, one can improve package design by thinking about source reduction, renewable material, recycled content, and recyclable material.

Source reduction

The US Environmental Protection Agency (Washington, D.C.) lists reduce first on its hierarchy of waste reduction, followed by reuse and recycle. That's because lighter packaging with less material or fewer components saves material and conserves resources. It also reduces energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions across the supply chain, from shipment of raw materials through production to shipment of components and finished product.

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