Packagers Pursue Sustainability - Pharmaceutical Technology

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Packagers Pursue Sustainability
Nonpharmaceutical manufacturers find ways to make environmentally sound packaging.

Pharmaceutical Technology

Renewable material

The most common renewable packaging material, wood fiber, is the basis of paper, paperboard, and corrugated cardboard. It's been widely used for decades, and responsible forestry practices in developed markets mean new trees are planted to replace harvested wood. To ensure fiber is derived from responsibly managed sources, a growing number of packaging buyers require certification of fiber-based packaging. As a result, many packaging suppliers rely on forest management certificates and chain-of-custody certificates issued under the auspices of the Forest Stewardship Council, (Bonn, Germany).

Fiber also is derived from nonwood sources. Some tree-free papers made from plants such as kenaf, an herbaceous annual related to cotton and okra that is indigenous to West Africa, have been marketed. Kenaf reaches maturity in a single season and offers a higher yield per acre than Southern pine. Because kenaf contains less lignin than Southern pine, it can be processed into paper faster, with less heat and fewer chemicals.

With oil costs rising and supplies dwindling, renewable alternatives to traditional packaging plastics such as PET and high-density polyethylene have received lots of attention. Many of today's commercial biopolymers such as polylactide (PLA) are derived from corn ("NatureWorks" polylactide, NatureWorks, Minnetonka, MN). However, packagers are using other materials such as palm fiber. The idea of using agricultural waste or nonfood crops, such as switch grass, rather than corn to produce biopolymers, is gaining interest.

Companies continue to improve bio-polymers' performance characteristics and cost competitiveness. However, no recycling infrastructure for biopolymers exists currently. In addition, mixing PLA packaging with the PET waste stream raises concerns about reducing the quality and performance characteristics of recycled PET.

Recycled content

The beverage industry also appears to be leading the way in the use of recycled content. Coca-Cola, for example, recently announced a $60-million investment in a plant that will recycle used PET containers into food-grade resin for bottle-to-bottle applications. The company plans to use the output of the plant, 100 million lb/year, in its beverage containers. As with other materials such as glass and aluminum, recycling plastic requires less energy than producing packaging from virgin materials. Recycling also reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and waste. The recycled PET resin plant is expected to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions of 1 million metric tons during its first 10 years of operation. The reduction is the equivalent of removing 21,500 cars from the road.

Recyclable material

Most packaging materials can be recycled, but collection programs and participation are not universal. As a result, the national recycling rate has stagnated and is actually declining for some materials. Huge quantities of potentially recyclable material are dumped in landfills. For many companies that rely on used packaging as a raw material, demand ironically exceeds supply.

A recent Government Accountability Office (Washington, DC) report, Recycling: Additional Efforts Could Increase Recycling, notes that increasing the recycling rate would require a national bottle bill, a producer "take-back" scheme such as the one used in Europe, and more public education about recycling. There has been resistance to this type of legislation, but opposition could dissolve in the face of rising concerns about finite resources, energy consumption, and low recycling rates. With or without passage of national legislation, the pharmaceutical industry can reap immediate benefits by increasing the sustainability of its packaging.

Hallie Forcinio is Pharmaceutical Technology's Packaging Forum editor, 4708 Morningside Drive, Cleveland, OH 44109, tel. 216.351.5824, fax 216.351.5684,


1. A Study of Packaging Efficiency as It Relates to Waste Prevention, (The Use Less Stuff Report, Rochester, MI, 2007).

Click here for a list of resources to help sustainable packaging initiatives.


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