Packaging Goes Green - Pharmaceutical Technology

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PharmTech Europe

Packaging Goes Green
Pharmaceutical companies get ideas for sustainable packaging from other industries.

Pharmaceutical Technology
Volume 33, Issue 10

Recycled content

Incorporating recycled content from postconsumer or postindustrial sources into packaging reduces the amount of virgin material needed and lowers greenhouse-gas emissions. Primary, secondary, and distribution packaging can all be made with recycled content. Companies should perform tests, however, to determine whether recycled-content packaging will reduce their costs or perform as well as virgin materials.

A range of 100% recycled PET (RPET) containers for liquid prescription drugs is available in 2–16-oz sizes. The bottles meet standards set by the US Pharmacopeia for virgin PET bottles, including limits on light and water-vapor transmission. The range of containers also is designed to meet child-resistant and senior-friendly protocol requirements set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (RPET containers for liquid pharmaceuticals, Rexam Prescription Products, Perrysburg, OH).

Although containers made of 100% RPET are feasible, blends of virgin and recycled material are more common because of relatively limited supplies of food-grade RPET. The percentage of RPET used is likely to rise during the next decade, however, because the number of suppliers of food-grade RPET and their capacities are increasing (Food-grade RPET resin, Phoenix Technologies, Bowling Green, OH).

RPET may require companies to fine tune the container-production process through adjustments such as increasing the level of melt filtering on preform equipment and modifying the bottle-blowing machine. Additives may be needed to impart desired properties and duplicate the viscosity of the virgin material. Regardless of whether 100% recycled content or a recycled–virgin blend is chosen, the resulting containers should perform the same as virgin PET containers on the filling line.

Recycled-HDPE (RHDPE) containers also offer filling-line performance equal to that of their virgin counterparts, although their color may differ slightly. A washing and devolatilization process converts postconsumer, food-grade HDPE bottles to food-grade recycled resin by removing impurities such as volatiles and fragrances to levels approximately 50% below FDA's maximum threshold. Sample quantities of RHDPE are currently supplied from a research and development line, but a full-scale production line is scheduled to start operations before the end of 2009. Although as much as 100% RHDPE can be used, a recycled–virgin blend will be more cost-effective until the price of scrap material declines (EcoPrime RHDPE, Envision Plastics, Reidsville, NC).

Another way to incorporate recycled content is as a layer in a multilayer package. One common application is laundry detergent bottles, but the technology is feasible for smaller containers and tubes.

Some suppliers offer inserts and folding cartons with recycled content. One firm's recycled content for inserts is typically 20%, of which 10% is derived from postconsumer sources, and its folding cartons may contain as much as 50% recycled content (Recycled-content inserts, folding cartons, Cortegra Group).

One option for recycled-content distribution packaging is an air-filled cushioning made of monolayer linear-low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) or coextruded LLDPE–nylon with as much as 40% recycled LLDPE. The material is made of roughly equal amounts of postconsumer recycled resin and industrial scrap (Astro-Bubble Green cushioning, Pregis, Deerfield, IL).

Renewable materials

Interest in packaging derived from renewable sources such as trees and corn is growing because of these materials' perceived advantages over materials derived from finite resources such as oil. Packaging derived from renewable resources offers a smaller carbon footprint and is seen as a way to meet corporate sustainability objectives. In addition, renewable materials often are biodegradable and may be compostable.

In response to rising demand, one maker of polylactic acid (PLA) bioresin doubled its production capacity and installed an applications laboratory equipped with a sheet-extrusion line, commercialsize thermoformer, and injection molder to help drug manufacturers develop packaging made from the biodegradable material. The expanded production capacity has been accompanied by process improvements that reduce PLA's carbon footprint by cutting energy consumption by 30% and carbon-dioxide emissions by 60%. With this change, PLA production generates 77% less carbon dioxide per kilogram of resin and consumes 56% less energy compared with PET. It also has a smaller carbon footprint than RPET (Ingeo PLA, NatureWorks, Minnetonka, MN).

But as demand for PLA rises, so do concerns about its postconsumer fate. Because few US consumers have access to industrial composting facilities and no municipal recycling infrastructure currently exists for PLA, containers are likely to end up in landfills or mixed with traditional plastics such as PET. Unfortunately, biodegradation generates methane in landfills, and small amounts of PLA contaminate RPET.

Although testing by NatureWorks and Primo Water shows it's possible to sort PLA from PET containers using near-infrared technology, the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) contends that the cost of such systems precludes widespread installation by recyclers. In addition, these systems tend to sort out too much PET with the PLA and do not capture enough PLA to prevent contamination problems. "The reality is that the PLA container becomes a contributor to PET bale yield loss, which is already a big concern for PET reclaimers," says Dennis Sabourin, executive director of NAPCOR.

One answer to some of the criticisms leveled at bioplastics may lie in using renewable sources to make polymers ordinarily derived from oil or natural gas. With a 30:70 blend of plant- and petroleum-based feedstock, the Plant-Bottle, recently introduced by Coca-Cola for Dasani water and sparkling brands, employs this tactic. Byproducts of sugar production, sugarcane and molasses, are converted into a key component of PET.

According to a life-cycle analysis by the Imperial College of London, the plant-based component is responsible for a 25% smaller carbon footprint, but has no ill effect on PET recycling. "The PlantBottle represents the next step in evolving our system toward the bottle of the future," says Scott Vitters, director of sustainable packaging for Coca-Cola. "This innovation ... moves us closer to our vision of zero waste with a material that lessens our carbon footprint and is also recyclable."


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