Packagers Pursue Sustainability

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-10-02-2007, Volume 31, Issue 10

Nonpharmaceutical manufacturers find ways to make environmentally sound packaging.

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.

Hallie Forcinio

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.

As a result, flexible packaging, which can save as much as 80% in weight, has a clear advantage over rigid packaging (1). Another source-reduction strategy includes putting concentrated products in smaller containers. Larger sizes are being embraced by makers of laundry detergent such as Procter & Gamble (Cincinnati, OH) and Unilever United States (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), which have introduced products that wash the same number of loads with one-half or one-third of the liquid used previously. "For packaging designers and decision makers ... the product-to-package weight ratio is an excellent topline indicator for making decisions about packaging efficiency and sustainability," says Bob Lilienfeld, editor of The Use Less Stuff Report.

It's also possible to lighten rigid containers. The beverage industry and its packaging suppliers are using state-of-the-art technology in process simulation, mold design, molding, and material innovations to reduce the weight of its containers and closures without affecting its high-speed filling lines.

Nestle Waters North America (Greenwich, CT), for example, is rolling out what it claims is the lightest half-liter polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottle in production ("Eco-Shape" container). At 12.5 g, the container weighs about 30% less than other water bottles. Ozarka Natural Spring Water launched the design in August 2007, but it eventually will be used across other sizes and other Nestle Waters brands such as Arrowhead. The lighter bottle uses a smaller label, but retains the 26.7-mm closure of its predecessor. The lightweight container must be handled more gently, especially when empty. In some cases, it requires fine-tuning of multipack specifications. In market tests, consumers responded positively to the container and liked it even better after they learned it is better for the environment.

For carbonated soft drinks, Coca-Cola (Atlanta, GA) introduced an updated design for its 20-oz contour PET bottle. The design reduces container weight by 5% while improving ergonomics with textured gripping areas. Weight savings is accomplished primarily by changes in the neck finish to accommodate a short-skirt cap.

Container-weight reduction often goes hand in hand with closure-weight reduction. The short-skirt closures coming on the market in the beverage industry not only weigh less than standard caps, but also allow bottle designers to use less material in the finish area of the bottle. The combined weight savings can total as much as 2 g/container ("Xtra-Lok" mini closure for carbonated soft drinks, "MB-Lok" mini closure for cold-filled malt beverages, Alcoa Closure Systems International, Indianapolis, IN).

Shortening the closure skirt removes material from both the closure and the neck finish of the container. (PHOTO: ALCOA CSI)

The short-skirt closures typically require changes in the capping process, but cap suppliers are prepared to assist in the transition ("capper conversion kit," Alcoa CSI).

One way to reduce cap weight is to design the closure to stack so that the top part of one cap supports the skirt bottom of the next. The resulting nested "logs" of closures retain their shape better. With as many as 60% more closures per corrugated shipper, the nested closures reduce packaging, lower freight costs, and minimize the time filling-line operators spend replenishing supplies. Currently available in 63-, 89- and 110- mm sizes, the closures are compatible with liquid and dry pharmaceuticals, and ambient and hot filling ("TaperStack" closures, Innovative Molding, Sebastopol, CA).

Nestable design requires less material per cap plus helps closures maintain their shape. (PHOTO: INNOVATIVE MOLDING)

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.