Sustainability Outside the Box

October 2, 2011
Hallie Forcinio
Pharmaceutical Technology

Volume 35, Issue 10

Drugmakers and packagers are pursuing various initiatives to reduce their carbon footprints. This article contains bonus material.

For pharmaceutical manufacturers, green packaging is just one facet of sustainability. Companies such as Merck, Pfizer, and Glaxo-SmithKline (GSK) take the big-picture view of sustainability and consider not only packaging, but also greenhouse-gas emissions, energy consumption, water use, waste, safety, health and wellness, and social and ethical responsibilities.

Hallie Forcinio

Companies' goals are ambitious; GSK, for example, intends to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Its interim goals include a 10% reduction of carbon emissions by 2015 and a 25% reduction by 2025. GSK also has goals for reducing water use and landfilled waste.

Merck and GSK rely on solar power to satisfy some of their energy needs. This energy source's positive effect on carbon footprint can be significant; With solar power supplying roughly 10% of the energy needs of two New Jersey facilities, Merck predicts it will reduce its annual carbon-dioxide emissions by 2500 tons, which is the equivalent of taking 400 cars off the road.

Increasingly, drugmakers and other consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are setting sustainability standards for suppliers to follow. GSK expects 90% of its paper packaging to be derived from sustainable sources by 2020 and has begun to measure supplier performance.

Demands for sustainable packaging come from all directions. It appeals to consumers and retailers, such as Walmart. Shareholder advocacy groups like As You Sow are demanding that CPG companies shift to green packaging. On the legislative front, interest is growing in adopting an extended producer responsibility (EPR) scheme under which manufacturers assume the expense and oversee the logistics related to packaging disposal. In Europe, where EPR requirements have been in place for many years, the lighter and more renewable the packaging material, the lower the costs associated with postconsumer collection, sorting, and recycling.

The global market for sustainable packaging is worth an estimated $107.7 billion in 2011. Rising demand from all stakeholders is expected to help the market grow steadily through 2021 (1).

Figure 1: Sustainable packaging efforts include design for recyclability or recycled content, lightweighting, renewable or biobased materials, and compostable materials.

To increase sustainability, designers incorporate recycled content or renewable materials and practice source reduction, a strategy that minimizes or eliminates packaging and almost always cuts material and transportation costs. Recycled content diverts waste from landfills and provides a market for recycled materials. Plant-based renewable materials reduce reliance on finite resources such as oil. All three tactics lower greenhouse-gas emissions and reduce carbon footprint.

Source reduction

In a survey of CPG companies and converters, more than half (57%) of respondents said they were working on converting to lightweight packages (2). "Reducing weight is driven in part by regulations, but also by cost savings," says Bernard Rioux, marketing and development manager for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at DuPont Packaging and Industrial Polymers.

Group provides a voice for packagers

A package redesign for Pfizer's Centrum multivitamins shows why lightweighting is such a popular tactic. Eliminating the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in the Centrum package and reducing the size of the shipping case saved 60 tons of material during the first year. The smaller shipping cases also allow more product to be shipped per truckload and eliminated the need for 124 trips.

At GSK, packaging changes have eliminated tons of material and carbon-dioxide emissions. For example, a redesigned canister for Ventolin and a transition from corrugated cases to pallet boxes for incoming inhaler components save 305 metric tons of material and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 1550 metric tons per year. Elimination of the PVC tray for Nicoderm resulted in a material savings of 8 metric tons and cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 metric tons.

Figure 2: The global market for bioplastics is undergoing a shift as biobased commodity plastics overtake biodegradable materials.

Many tools support source-reduction efforts. One machine minimizes consumption of corrugated cardboard by matching package size to the products being shipped. On-demand conversion of fanfolded corrugated sheet into boxes generates substantial savings in materials, inventory, and transportation costs by reducing the need to purchase and store many sizes of corrugated cases, minimizing cushioning requirements, eliminating out-of-stock and obsolete box inventory, and increasing the amount of product per truckload. In addition, operational efficiency improves because the strategy requires less box handling, less inventory planning and management, and less communication with vendors. The compact unit occupies 100 ft2 of floor space (Right-sized Packaging on Demand system, Packsize International).

A service optimizes distribution packaging by evaluating its size, material content, fill, and ability to prevent damage. Packaging that performs acceptably may be marked with a special logo (Eco Responsible Packaging Program, UPS). Suggestions for improvements can be made if a package fails (consulting services, UPS Package Lab).

A palette of sustainable practices

Software also can be a valuable optimization tool. Life-cycle assessment software compares packaging choices and evaluates its environmental effects. The tool allows users to import their own life-cycle-inventory and life-cycle impact-assessment data, accepts custom end-of-life recycling rates for individual materials, and models criteria to meet the requirements of Walmart's Packaging Scorecard or the Global Packaging Project (PackageSmart life cycle assessment software, EarthShift).

Package design and palletization software, together with cargo-load planning software, size packaging to create the most efficient pallet loads for shipping. Functions include calculating compression or stacking strength to determine the corrugated grade that will protect the product most cost-effectively. The software also optimizes package dimensions to maximize the amount of product shipped per truck or container and creates mixed pallets for display. Savings in corrugated cardboard and transportation costs can reach 20% (TOPS Pro and MaxLoad Pro software, TOPS Engineering; Cape Pack and Truckfill software from CAPE Systems).

Recycled content

Levels of recycled content are increasing in many packaging formats, particularly for fiber-based packaging, such as corrugated cases, and film and containers made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). In fact, GSK has switched from a PVC clamshell to a recycled PET (rPET) clamshell for Abreva. The change cuts carbon-dioxide emissions by 25–52 g/pack.

PET films with recycled content fit numerous applications and are compatible with radio-frequency sealing or heat sealing. Designed to contain a minimum of 35% or 50% postconsumer recycled (PCR) content derived from bottles, respectively, the films are suitable for thermoformed packaging, including clamshells, blisters, and trays (Pentaform SmartCycle films, Klöckner Pentaplast Group).

With rising demand, especially from the beverage industry, the supply of food-grade rPET is growing rapidly. New capacity for food-grade rPET is becoming available in North America, Europe, and Asia. A vertically integrated container maker is expanding its recycling facility to produce ultraclean rPET from PCR material so it can increase rPET levels in its food-grade containers. The expansion will also help the company double its worldwide recycling capability to 10 billion bottles per year by 2016 (Clean Tech recycling facility, Plastipak Packaging).

The expansion of a recycling operation in the United Kingdom will more than double production of food-grade rPET in that country and help Coca-Cola Enterprises increase recycled content to 25% in all its PET packaging in Great Britain by 2012 (ECO Plastics).

The expansion of another European recycling plant will increase its rPET capacity from 25,000 to 35,000 metric tons and nearly double the number of bottles diverted from landfills each year. The vertically integrated plant in France also produces preforms (Artenius PET Packaging Europe).

A plant under construction in Vietnam will recycle 1.5 billion PET bottles per year into food-grade rPET. Although configured primarily for bottle-to-bottle applications, the facility also can produce recycled resin for fiber or carpet (Thanh Tai Gas).

Renewable materials

Although bioplastics, such as polylactic acid and microorganism-generated polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), receive considerable attention from package designers and specifiers, much interest in biopolymers has shifted to traditional resins such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and PET made from plant-derived feedstocks. These replacements are chemically identical to their petroleum-based counterparts and are recyclable through existing postconsumer collection streams.

In fact, bio-based commodity plastics are forecast to overtake biodegradable materials globally, especially for packaging applications. "Our market study shows that biobased commodity plastics, with a total of around 1 million [metric] tons, will make up the majority of production capacity in 2015," reports Hans-Josef Endres, professor of engineering and biotechnology at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Hanover, Germany. Of a total market of 1.7 million metric tons in 2015, traditional biodegradable bioplastics will account for 0.7 million metric tons (3).

One family of bio-based amorphous PET films contains as much as 30% renewable content. Derived from ethylene made from sugarcane, the films run on the same tooling as petroleum-based PET and exhibit identical properties (TerraPET films, Klöckner Pentaplast).

In other industries, major brands have introduced containers made of biobased HDPE or PET. PepsiCo claims to have created the first PET bottle made from 100% plant-based, renewable materials such as switch grass, pine bark, and corn husks. Pilot production will begin in 2012, followed by full-scale commercialization. Eventually, the company plans to use orange peels, potato peels, oat hulls, and other agricultural byproducts from its foods business as the source material.

PET bottles with 100% plant-based content require plant-based ingredients such as ethylene glycol and purified terephthalic acid (PTA). Plant-based ethylene glycol has been available for some time and accounts for about 30% of the finished bottle. At least one biobased ethanol plant is operating in Brazil (Braskem). Another is under construction in Santa Vitória, Brazil (joint venture between The Dow Chemical Co. and Mitsui & Co.).

Plant-based PTA is just becoming available and typically starts with plant-based para-xylene, a precursor to PTA (sugar-beet-based para-xylene, Virent Energy Systems). Another plant-based para-xylene has been used successfully to make test quantities of PET film and is in the scale-up stage. It's also being studied for use in bottles (plant-based para-xylene, Gevo).

PET PlantBottle containers for Coca-Cola's Dasani water contain 30% renewable content based on sugarcane. Coca-Cola predicts that sales of products in PlantBottle containers will exceed 5 billion in 2011—about twice the number sold in 2010. Market reach has also grown from nine countries in 2010 to 15 in 2011. Coca-Cola also has developed an HDPE PlantBottle based on ethanol derived from sugarcane. It is used for single-serving containers for Odwalla juice products.

Other brand owners using sugarcane-based HDPE containers include Danone Canada and Procter & Gamble (P&G). Danone Canada estimates that its conversion to sugarcane-based HDPE containers for DanActive, Danacol, Danino Go, and Activia drinkable yogurt will reduce its carbon footprint by 55%. "The packaging for Danone products accounts for 40% of our company's ecological footprint, and is the second most important factor in terms of emissions," notes Anne-Julie Maltais, manager of external communications for Danone Canada.

At P&G, switching to sugarcane-based HDPE bottles for Pantene Pro-V Nature Fusion hair-care products will help meet sustainability goals. The global rollout begins in western Europe and should be completed by 2013. By 2020, the company plans to replace 25% of petroleum-based materials with sustainably sourced, renewable materials. Eventually, P&G intends to use only renewable or recycled materials for its products and 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. Visongain, "Sustainable & Green Packaging Market 2011–2021," (London, June 30, 2011).

2. DuPont, "Survey of Global Consumer Packaged Goods Manufacturers and Converters," (Wilmington, DE, May 2011).

3. "Global Production Capacity of Bioplastics," University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Hanover, Germany, 2011.