Beyond Reusability in Cold-Chain Shippers

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Equipment and Processing Report, Equipment and Processing Report August 2021, Volume 14, Issue 08

Consider tactics to meet sustainability objectives for temperature-controlled packaging.

The pharmaceutical industry is focused on making documented, measurable strides to meet goals related to environmentally friendly business practices. “Many large pharma companies have initiatives in place to become carbon neutral in the coming decades,” notes Jay McHarg, CEO at AeroSafe Global, a supplier of cold-chain services for the biopharma industry. So, sustainable packaging is receiving a lot of attention, particularly for temperature-controlled packaging. Sought-after attributes include reusability, recyclability, and renewable content.

EPS alternatives

Many firms are looking for alternatives to expanded polystyrene (EPS), a cost-effective material that is commonly used for temperature-controlled packaging and performs well. Recycling EPS, however, poses some challenges.

Reducing carbon emissions and the amount of EPS going into landfills was the goal set by New England Biolabs, a provider of reagents for life science researchers. “Cold-chain shipping has always been a challenge from an environmental standpoint,” recalls Deana D. Martin, PhD, associate director, Marketing Communications, New England Biolabs. She explains, “Most of our products require shipment on ice, and maintaining shipping temperature conditions is critical, particularly when shipping long distances or to warmer climates.”

Martin notes, “…when we heard about the ClimaCell Cooler, we were excited to be able to implement a more environmentally-friendly solution…. The majority of our shipments now use the ClimaCell Cooler.” The paper-based ClimaCell insert, developed by TemperPack, can maintain the required temperature for the duration of the product’s transit time. After unpacking, the entire box, which is based on renewable content, is recyclable with other corrugated.

“For the minority of products that require shipment on dry ice, we are still using EPS coolers,” reports Martin. However, the EPS coolers are recycled via a program established by the company more than 40 years ago. Customers simply use the enclosed return label to return the EPS cooler to New England Biolabs for free. “We estimate that 25–30% of the EPS coolers we ship are returned,” concludes Martin.

Humana Pharmacy has taken a different approach toward EPS. It has transitioned to a molded and biodegradable EPS package for temperature-sensitive medications. Shipments began in May 2021. “The biodegradable EPS is designed to decompose more than 90% by the end of four years in most landfills,” reports Michael Taday, president of Prescription Home Delivery, Retail Pharmacy, and OTC, Humana Pharmacy. Also new are long-lasting refrigerant gel packs, which are filled with a non-toxic, biodegradable gel, which can be washed down the kitchen sink. 

Kemp Proteins, a provider of gene-to-protein and monoclonal antibody development services, has also chosen a biodegradable EPS for its cold-chain shipments, Envirocooler-EVG insulation from Lifoam Industries. Its thermal and structural properties are equivalent to traditional EPS, but a bio-based additive causes the material to break down in a bioreactive landfill without leaving microplastics. The result is an 83% reduction in packaging going to the landfill. “This simple change will result in an immediate and significant reduction of our overall environmental footprint,” said Michael Keefe, CEO of Kemp Proteins (1).

Renewable materials

Lifoam also offers other sustainable options. Its latest innovation, Bioffex polylactic acid, is 100% bio-based; it is derived from renewable plants and contains no petroleum-based content. Compostable in industrial facilities, the material’s sustainable manufacturing process consumes up to 50% less water and less energy (due to steam reduction) than traditional EPS, thereby lowering greenhouse gas emissions (2).

Another renewable option, the EOS line of temperature-controlled packaging from Sonoco ThermoSafe is produced from 100% post-industrial, pre-consumer paper fiber. With no non-recyclable components, third-party testing has confirmed its recyclability in curbside programs (3).


Also recyclable in curbside programs, the TRUEtemp Naturals Line from Packaging Technology Group (PTG). The line’s newest member, the extra-small PTGS-515-CEL shipper, offers payload dimensions of 7x3x5 inches. Designed to handle small bulk and direct-to-patient shipments, the thermal shipper maintains 2–8 ºC for 48 hours. The same pack-out has been qualified for summer and winter, with a small change to the refrigerant material’s preconditioning. Eliminating the need to switch packouts depending on season and shipment conditions simplifies training and daily decision-making and reduces the chance of the payload experiencing temperature excursions. TRUEtemp Naturals shippers decrease waste potential by 85%, water use by 90%, fossil fuel use by 78%, and mineral resource use by 83% in comparison to a standard EPS shipper (4).

The TRUEtemp Naturals Line also includes a dual temperature shipper that allows products with different temperature requirements to travel together (e.g., one frozen and one refrigerated). The ability to dual ship reduces shipping costs and assembly training (5).

Other products and support

The latest product developed by va-Q-tec, the non-returnable va-Q-pal pallet shipper, uses the same technologies as its va-Q-tainer such as vacuum insulation and temperature storage elements to maintain a constant temperature inside for several days without an external power supply or refilling with dry ice. The va-Q-pal shipper “is nevertheless very light and can be used several times on-site for regional transports, even continental logistics via truck are possible several times,” says Dr. Joachim Kuhn, CEO and founder of va-Q-tec.

Suppliers of temperature-controlled packaging also are offering services related to environmental monitoring, shipment and asset tracking, and inventory management. PTG can pair its shippers with an inventory management system for full traceability and asset tracking.

A real-time sustainability metrics portal, developed by AeroSafe Global, provides access to the latest data about how much water, energy, and waste savings has resulted from adopting reusable cold-chain shippers. “As one example, a customer that migrated from single-use to reuse reduced its carbon footprint by 5%—across its enterprise,” reports McHarg. He adds, “We are also launching a cold chain control tower to provide actionable data back to customers around efficiency, delivery insights, lane analysis, and more for improved decision-making.”

In partnership with Cloudleaf, Cold Chain Technologies has launched a Smart Solutions digital platform to provide 24/7 supply chain visibility, including product location and condition, to ensure on-time delivery and maintenance of appropriate temperatures throughout the shipping process.


1. Lifoam Industries, “Kemp Proteins Selects Lifoam’s Envirocooler as Prime Packager,” Press Release, Sept. 16, 2020.

2. Lifoam Industries, “Envirocooler bioffex,”, accessed Aug. 1, 2021.

3. Sonoco Thermosafe, “Sonoco ThermoSafe Launches EOS Line of Curbside Recyclable Temperature Controlled Parcel Shippers,” Press Release, Nov. 5, 2020.

4. Packaging Technology Group, “Packaging Technology Group (PTG) Expands Its TRUEtemp Naturals Line with a Universal, Extra-Small 2-8 Solution,” Press Release, March 16, 2021.

5. Packaging Technology Group, “Packaging Technology Group (PTG) Expands Its Line of TRUEtemp Naturals Products with a First of Its Kind, Dual Temp Thermal Packaging Solution,” Press Release, April 23, 2020.