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Approaching Sustainable Packaging In The Pharmaceutical Packaging Industry

June 17, 2024

In the intricate web of modern healthcare, pharmaceutical packaging often remains unsung, yet it plays a critical role in preserving the integrity of essential medicines. Traditionally, the industry has relied on plastic for its reliable qualities—sterility, durability, and chemical inertness. 

However, as the world shifts its view on plastic, driven by growing concerns over plastic waste, stricter environmental regulations, and evolving public attitudes, the pharmaceutical sector is under increasing pressure to find sustainable packaging solutions that align with its commitment to patient health.

One solution gaining traction is the use of Post-Consumer and Pre-Consumer Regrind (PCR). PCR gives discarded plastics a new purpose by repurposing recycled plastics from various sources, including end-users and production waste, to create innovative packaging. 

As environmental awareness takes precedence, PCR offers a practical way to reduce the environmental footprint of pharmaceutical packaging without compromising the core objective of ensuring patient safety.

This article delves into the practical aspects of PCR materials in pharmaceutical packaging, exploring their benefits and challenges and why a demand-driven, responsible, and pragmatic approach is essential in the pursuit of sustainability. 

This journey is about finding pragmatic ways to address the environmental impact of pharmaceutical packaging, making it less wasteful without sacrificing the industry’s primary commitment to patient well-being.

What are PCR Materials, and How Can They Benefit the Environment?

Pre-consumer regrind, or post-industrial recycled (PIR) material, consists of manufacturer waste, such as off-cuts, trimmings, and rejects, repurposed to create recycled packaging or products. Post-consumer regrind, on the other hand, is consumer waste diverted from landfills and used in the production of plastic packaging or products.

The PCR market is being driven by growing consumer awareness about environmental issues and the increasing rise in petroleum prices. This surge in demand for PCR globally has many businesses eager to embrace this innovation.

The benefits of PCR make it even more attractive despite its sustainability benefits, such as reducing waste, lowering the carbon footprint of manufacturing, and promoting a circular economy. For example, PCR reduces manufacturer costs as fewer, more expensive virgin materials are needed in production.

Investment in sustainable packaging also offers financial benefits. Due to rising demand and lower manufacturing costs, businesses are likely to enjoy a higher ROI. Furthermore, cost-cutting in manufacturing will benefit healthcare services. 

Gaining favor with environmentally concerned customers benefits a business’s brand, earning them a reputation for commitment to long-term sustainability and prioritizing customers’ needs. However, necessary and stringent regulations within the pharmaceutical industry mean virgin plastic cannot be entirely ruled out due to the need to safeguard patient safety and medicine integrity. However, PCR provides a way for the pharmaceutical industry to reduce and address its contribution to the plastics crisis.

Considerations, Limitations, and a Responsible Approach

Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry is among the top global contributors to pollution. It finds itself balancing stringent health and safety requirements set by regulatory bodies and the expectations of environmentally concerned consumers.

While other industries enjoy the freedom to prioritize design, aesthetics, and sustainability in their packaging, the pharmaceutical industry must maintain health and safety standards as the utmost priority. This presents an ever-present challenge. PCR-derived packaging has limitations, including compromised quality, process inconsistencies, application limitations, and contamination, all inhibiting its viability as a universally suitable packaging solution.

In the pharmaceutical context, this potential lack of “purity” in PCR means the material’s background is undetermined or traceable. This uncertainty limits its use for various pharmaceutical products, such as those injected into the bloodstream.

Although PCR materials are a trending solution to the plastics crisis, supply shortages are a thorn in the side of manufacturers. Many people are unaware of how to properly recycle plastics, including pharmaceutical packaging. In fact, about 699,999 tons of plastic are thrown away instead of being recycled each week in the US. This lack of public awareness contributes to the mounting global plastic crisis and creates a supply shortage for PCR manufacturers.

Addressing these knowledge gaps through comprehensive public awareness campaigns and educational initiatives is paramount to bridging the gap between demand and supply for PCR. Furthermore, contamination of recyclable plastics renders the waste useless as it cannot be used to create PCR. Contaminants come in the form of food scraps and oils, and even labels that have not been adequately removed before recycling.

The PCR supply shortage means businesses too focused on riding the popular recycled materials trend risk adversely affecting the environment, which is counterproductive. The use of PCR must be responsibly governed with sustainability in mind. The waste hierarchy calls for prioritizing the prevention of waste rather than having to deal with waste. Sustainability needs to be reimagined at the earliest stages of design, incorporating reuse and recycling methods such as PCR.

Partially recycled packaging, such as medicine bottles made of 30 percent recycled plastic, still positively contributes to the battle against plastic pollution and has some advantages over 100 percent recycled packaging.

Enhancing Regulatory Collaboration for Sustainable Packaging

As the pharmaceutical industry embarks on the journey towards more sustainable packaging solutions through the integration of PCR, regulatory collaboration is crucial. Ensuring that new materials comply with stringent health and safety standards while meeting environmental objectives is a delicate balancing act. Concerns about contamination and inconsistencies in PCR for medicinal packaging must be addressed. Industry stakeholders and regulators can develop protocols and quality assurance measures to ensure the reliability and safety of PCR in pharmaceutical packaging.

Pharmaceutical companies need to work closely with regulatory bodies to establish clear guidelines and standards for using PCR in packaging. This collaboration is pivotal in overcoming the hurdles associated with the adoption of recycled materials in an industry where patient safety is non-negotiable. Developing industry-specific guidelines and standards for PCR use, testing, and quality assurance could mitigate some of the issues currently facing the adoption of recycled materials.

Although there is a long way to go, growing commitment and continued investment in sustainability research mean the future of a cleaner pharmaceutical packaging industry is hopeful.


To learn more about Premium Label & Packaging Solution's Pharmaceutical Packaging solutions –which include compostable and recyclable flexible packaging, recyclable shrink sleeves, thinner liners and substrates – visit our website today and discover how we can help you achieve your sustainability goals.

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