Packaging Becomes More Sustainable

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology, April 2023, Volume 47, Issue 4
Pages: 36–38, 49

Manufacturers and suppliers join forces to reduce the pharmaceutical industry’s carbon footprint.

The market for sustainable pharmaceutical packaging is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.4% to $146.3 billion by 2027 (1). Primary packaging is forecast to register the strongest CAGR. Sustainable primary packaging materials such as eco-friendly bioplastics and biodegradable materials like paper or cellulose minimize environmental impact, reduce waste, and conserve resources. At the same time, innovative packaging designs reduce waste and carbon footprint through lightweighting and downgauging. Pharmaceutical companies also are exploring the feasibility of reducing waste by adopting reusable or refillable packaging (1).

Changing attitudes

Forces driving interest in sustainable pharmaceutical packaging include laws and regulations and a shift in consumer preferences toward recyclable and eco-friendly packaging materials (1). “Stakeholders throughout the value chain—employees, healthcare professionals, patients, policymakers, and investors—expect every business to be working toward and reporting on how they are impacting sustainability,” says Søren Tulstrup, president and CEO, Hansa Biopharma.

Lon Johnson, vice-president of Sales and Marketing at Colbert Packaging, has noticed this attitude too, especially among large pharmaceutical companies. He says, “There is a significant trend toward decarbonization and net zero goal setting, and they are encouraging supply chain participation in the effort. These North American companies are taking their cues from European counterparts who have led the charge to sustainability. We have seen an increase in supplier sustainability surveys from our customers in recent years. More and more, they are looking to work with suppliers who are committed to the same goals and vision for sustainability that they have.”

Committed suppliers are a requirement for Hansa Biopharma. Tolstrup reports, “All supplier agreements ensure that every effort is made to integrate sustainable practices into all aspects of these businesses. We work closely with our suppliers to ensure they are looking for ways to reduce waste and maximize recycling opportunities for manufacturing residuals. For instance, our supplier agreements require that partners have systems and procedures in place to safely handle waste and discharge, and to optimize the use of all relevant resources sustainably, including but not limited to, energy, water, and materials.”

Real-world progress

Many pharmaceutical manufacturers are working toward improving the sustainability of their packaging and their operations in general. Since October 2021, when Astellas Pharma introduced a biomass-based plastic blister package in Japan for Irribow Tablet 5 µg (ramosetron hydrochloride) to treat diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome, it has expanded the use of plant-derived materials for its blister packaging. The blister package is made of polyethylene (PE) derived from sugarcane, as 50% of its raw material. A spokesperson for Astellas Pharma, reports, “This is the world’s first use of biomass plastic for blister packages for drugs. It is an environmentally friendly packaging that agrees with the concept of ‘carbon neutrality,’ which is the idea of balancing greenhouse gas emissions and absorption.” Emphasizing renewability rather than recyclability provides a blister package that can contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

To expand its efforts, Astellas Pharma began a collaboration in December 2022 with Eisai, Daiichi Sankyo, and Takeda to reduce the environmental burden posed by pharmaceutical packaging. Based on the agreement, Astellas Pharma will promote the use of more environmentally friendly packaging for pharmaceutical products by sharing knowledge about technologies such as biomass-based blister packs, compact packaging, recycled-content packaging materials, and recyclable packaging materials. “In doing so,” the spokesperson notes, “Astellas, Eisai, Daiichi Sankyo, and Takeda aim to ensure that society benefits from this collaboration to harmonize corporate activities with the global environment.” Moreover, the partners hope to eventually expand their collaboration to other manufacturers.

Packaging suppliers also are working to provide more sustainable options. Johnson explains, “The sustainability story is no longer a footnote or ‘nice to have.’ It has been moved to front and center in terms of corporate social responsibility. As a paperboard packaging manufacturer, we are committed to developing new and better ways to utilize paper in packaging as a 100% alternative to plastic, or as a means to using less plastic in a more environmentally friendly way.”

So, Colbert Packaging is focused on developing paperboard packaging that uses less material and offers increased recyclability. Tactics include the adoption of water- and agri-based inks, coatings, and adhesives as well as the design and engineering of lightweight, right-sized cartons. The company also practices responsible sourcing with 100% of its paperboard derived from certified, responsibly managed forests. Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative certifications mean the firm can provide chain of custody documentation to buyers of its paperboard cartons.

“Downstream, we know that our secondary packaging materials are 100% recyclable, and most are compostable,” says Johnson. “We use various grades and types of paperboards … including 100% recycled board and other paperboards that contain post-consumer recycled content,” he adds.

More sustainable options for blister packaging include the EcoLam mono-PE family of recyclable laminates from Constantia Flexibles. Based on oriented PE in duplex or triplex structures, metallization and aluminum oxide can impart barrier properties that yield a material that can compete with aluminum foil laminates. These barrier materials are present at such low levels that recyclability of the PE is unaffected, according to RecyClass, a Europe-based nonprofit, cross-industry initiative facilitating the transition toward a circular plastic future (2).


Hansa Biopharma works to ensure its packaging is recycled and that partners understand and follow local requirements regarding packaging waste and recycling. “For instance,” says Tulstrup, “in Austria we contract with Alstoff Recycling Austria to ensure compliance with the Austrian Waste Management Act. At Hansa, we strive to make sustainable decisions across the entire value chain. Our lead molecule, imlifidase, is a cold-chain product—meaning it is temperature-sensitive and must always remain at a specific temperature. Therefore, we work with suppliers to ensure appropriate packaging and shipping are used while maintaining the temperature and protecting the integrity of the product. We also continue to investigate how to reduce the packaging required to provide the correct environment for the product given the cold-chain requirements.”

Hurdles to sustainability

Stumbling blocks to adopting more sustainable packaging include technical issues, cost, and environmental awareness. From a technology perspective, multi-material structures make recycling difficult. Even if alternatives to foil and multi-material laminations exist, the infrastructure to cost-effectively recycle the materials must be developed and be widely available to make recycling a feasible disposal option for this type of packaging.

Cost is always part of any sourcing discussion. “There is a perception that … a more sustainable solution means added cost. Sometimes it is more costly, but it is not a given,” says Johnson. Indeed, some premium for sustainable packaging may be warranted. “Eco-friendly packaging is not always cheap, but we believe that it is a responsible investment considering the importance of the global environment,” reports the spokesperson for Astellas Pharma.

In many regions, there still isn’t enough recognition of environmental issues. “For instance,” says the spokesperson, “not everyone is aware of the carbon footprint of the packaging process or takes concrete actions to address environmental matters.”

Beyond packaging

Packaging is not the only area where pharmaceutical manufacturers and their packaging suppliers are taking steps to be more sustainable. Astellas Pharma, for example, also focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2021, Hansa Biopharma assessed its business to understand priority areas for sustainable business operations and formalized its commitment to Healthy Patients, Healthy Business, and Healthy Planet. “To advance our commitment to Healthy Patients, we work closely with patient advocacy groups and healthcare decision-makers to ensure equitable access to our medicine,” says Tulstrup.

Operating a Healthy Business means focusing on the well-being of employees including safeguarding laboratory staff, eliminating gender pay gaps, and maintaining a low turnover rate.

Tulstrup explains, “We also have a robust governance structure and Employee Code of Conduct to instill a high level of integrity and value-driven behaviors throughout the organization. Additionally, we require that all vendors, partners, and suppliers sign a Supplier Code of Conduct that focuses on fair labor, ethical business practices, and health, safety, and environment practices. Underscoring our commitment to Healthy Planet, nearly two-thirds of the energy used in our operations in 2021 was completely renewable.”

At Colbert Packaging’s facility in Kenosha, Wis., it is pursuing zero manufacturing waste-to-landfill status. Johnson says, “We are proud to say that no paperboard waste from our operations goes to a landfill. Working with companies like River Valley Paper, we are recycling approximately 3000 tons of paper and production-related material in a typical year.”

Colbert Packaging also participates in alternative energy programs such as wind energy, through renewable energy credits. “By supporting Green-e Energy certified wind power, we are taking action against climate change, improving our overall environmental footprint, and having a direct impact on renewable energy projects,” concludes Johnson.


  1. MarketsandMarkets. Sustainable Pharmaceutical Packaging Market Worth $146.3 Billion by 2027—Exclusive Report by MarketsandMarkets. News Release. Feb. 17, 2023.
  2. Constantia Flexibles. What Is the Future of Flexible Film Packaging in a Circular Economy? Webinar. Feb. 21, 2023.

About the author

Hallie Forcinio is packaging editor for Pharmaceutical Technology.

Article details

Pharmaceutical Technology
Vol. 46, No. 4
April 2023
Pages: 36–38, 49


When referring to this article, please cite it as Focinio, H. Packaging Becomes More Sustainable. Pharmaceutical Technology 2023 47 (4).