Sustainability Surprises - Pharmaceutical Technology

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Sustainability Surprises
Identifying the most sustainable packaging for a product is rarely a simple exercise.


Pharmaceutical Technology
Volume 9, Issue 32, pp. 4650

Is it better to create packaging from renewable resources than from nonrenewable sources? Packaging derived from renewable resources such as trees and other plants slows the depletion of nonrenewable resources such as oil, steel, and aluminum. However, making packaging from food plants such as corn is not a sustainable practice if it reduces the food available for people or increases its cost.


In defense of PVC
In addition, although the recycling infrastructure for fiber-based packaging such as paper and corrugated boxes is well established and those materials are recycled at a relatively high rate, recycling for biopolymers is virtually nonexistent. Even worse, the presence of biopolymers may contaminate the recycling stream of conventional polymers. Polylactide, for example, ruins recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET) at levels of less than one bottle per thousand, according to a study by PTI-Europe (Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland) for the Technical Committee of Petcore.

However, it may be possible to obtain traditional polymers from renewable resources, which would be the best of both worlds. A joint venture is building a facility in Brazil to produce linear-low-density polyethylene from sugarcane-derived ethanol. The resulting resin, scheduled to be available in 2011, will be molecularly and functionally equivalent to traditional hydrocarbon-based linear-low-density polyethylene (Dow Chemical, Midland, MI, and Crystalsev, São Paulo, Brazil).

Hybrid resins that combine petroleum content with renewable content also are appearing on the market. One polypropylene made of equal amounts of petroleum and starch injection molds, extrusion blowmolds, and thermoforms just like purely petroleum-based resin (Biopropylene, Cereplast, Hawthorne, CA).

Are biodegradable materials better than nonbiodegradable materials? Not if they end up in a landfill. Modern landfills are designed to prevent decomposition. Thus, "biodegradable material in a landfill is of questionable value," says Enneking. Even worse, biomaterials that do degrade generate methane, a GHG with 23 times more heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide. According to the Environmental Paper Network, more than one-third of municipal solid waste is paper, and municipal landfills represent the largest source of human-related methane emissions. In fact, the US Environmental Protection Agency has identified the decomposition of paper as among the most significant sources of landfill methane.

Are compostable materials better than biodegradable materials? Compostable materials are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable materials are compostable. Compostable materials decompose in commercial or home composting facilities in a matter of weeks without any negative impact. To ensure compostable packaging performs as expected, it should meet US or European standards for degradability in industrial composting settings (i.e., ASTM D6400 or EN 13432, respectively) or be certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute. Yet the extremely limited access to commercial or home composting facilities means that few compostable packages are actually being composted at present.

Is packaging that contains recycled content better than that made of virgin material? Recycled content will significantly reduce costs and GHG emissions for packages made of aluminum, glass, and steel. In addition, these materials can be recycled repeatedly with no loss in properties.

Infinite reuse of fiber- and polymer-based packaging may not be possible, however, because each generation tends to suffer a loss of properties. Still, technology continues to improve the properties of these recycled materials. As it does with aluminum, glass, and steel, recycled content in fiber-based and polymer packaging reduces energy consumption and GHG emissions. High percentages of recycled content are possible, too. Packaging with 100% recycled fiber content is commonplace and often marked with a special logo (100% Recycled Paperboard Alliance). Percentages of recycled polymers tend to be lower. But food-grade containers made of 100% RPET, a percentage once thought to be impossible, are on the market.

Food-grade PET film with recycled content is available for use in thermoformed trays, clamshells, surface-sealed blisters, and other containers. Some films not only offer guaranteed levels of recycled content but also are produced with renewable energy ("SmartCycle" films, Klöckner Pentaplast).

Hurdles to sustainable packaging

Recycling rates for most packaging materials are low in the US, compared with many other parts of the world. Rates range from about 20% for glass containers to 78% for corrugated boxes (see Table I). To raise recycling rates, collection rates must increase. Increasing collection rates would entail convincing business, government leaders, and consumers to view used packaging as a raw material rather than waste, improving the reach and efficiency of the collection infrastructure, and advancing sorting technology to increase the purity of sorted material streams. It's also necessary to address economic factors to ensure that collection programs generate income, or at least break even, rather than drain community resources. A particularly important goal should be to change consumer behavior to eliminate the reasons for not recycling such as laziness, inability or unwillingness to pay fees for curbside collection of recyclables, absence of curbside collection or convenient drop-off programs, and lack of collection points.

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