What does sustainability mean to healthcare packaging?
In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainability as “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
There are a variety of initiatives that are underway and being proposed for consumer goods packaging. However, the demands placed on many types of healthcare packaging preclude some of these sustainable initiatives. The mantra of ‘Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle’ is severely limited by FDA and EU regulatory requirements for healthcare packaging. For example, there are significant restrictions on reuse or recycling of materials for healthcare products and their packaging. Compostable packaging materials are currently unlikely candidates for healthcare packaging due to concerns about shelf life limitations and sterilization compatibility.
On a more positive note, continued advances in materials have made and may continue to make it possible to reduce the amount of packaging used. It is often possible to use thinner or lighter materials for packaging through the use of laminates and coextrusions as well as using newly available polymers, copolymers and additives. These new materials often perform at such a high level that reductions in the amounts of packaging used can reach 20 to 50% depending on the application and existing package structure and sterile barrier system. Because of the potential for cost savings involved, this type of packaging reduction has gone on for many years. Yet, there are still opportunities to reduce the amount of packaging used in many healthcare applications. In addition, package reduction can also be achieved by changes to package design and/or package format.
While the feasibility of including recycled materials into healthcare packaging remains dubious given the current regulatory environment, the potential to recycle healthcare packaging into other applications is more promising. There exists a significant quantity of potentially recyclable material that is lost to landfill due to lack of infrastructure to capture it in a way that would facilitate recycling. The lack of a defined cost effective recycle stream for these materials is a contributing reason for this loss.
An additional option is for materials to be channeled into an energy recovery system. In this process materials are incinerated and the energy released in burning is converted to generate electricity. This option does not have the same limitations of materials streams as the recycle process in terms of multi-layers film structures. The EPA identifies that 90% of all potentially infectious medical waste in the US is incinerated. A move towards making this practice into energy recovery systems may offer a better alternative to landfill waste of medical packaging systems.
An encouraging development is the recent establishment of industry related groups focused on sustainability in healthcare. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) is one organization. The HPRC website describes the group as follows: “HPRC is a private technical coalition of peers across the healthcare, recycling and waste management industries seeking to inspire and enable sustainable, cost-effective recycling solutions for plastic products and materials used in the delivery of healthcare.” Another organization of note is Practice Greenhealth. The website describes this organization as follows: “Practice Greenhealth is the source for environmental solutions for the healthcare sector and lends support to create better, safer, greener workplaces and communities. Practice Greenhealth is a nonprofit membership organization founded on the principles of positive environmental stewardship and best practices by organizations in the healthcare community.” The Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) has also been actively engaged in pursuing the end of life options for food and medical packaging.
An evolving area to explore in packaging sustainability is the source of the raw materials. While recycled materials are not suitable for healthcare packaging, the use of raw materials from sustainable sources can be explored further. One source of sustainable materials suitable for healthcare packaging is familiar polymers made from new sources of hydrocarbons. For instance large scale production of polyethylene using sugar cane as the raw material has recently become a reality. Other similar processes will likely be developed over the next few years to produce other common polymers from sustainable sources, not petroleum or natural gas. Of course, any new material must be tested to prove its suitability for the intended use. If the basic polymer chemistry is unchanged, there is a high likelihood that these new materials will perform like their petroleum based analogs. The new materials lack long term performance data making the willingness for assuming initial risk a potential barrier.
Referring back to the definition above, “Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” As this relates to packaging it should be noted that the system that creates our ability to package and protect healthcare products, must be evaluated on the broadest possible scale; what materials are used to make the package, how efficiently can it be made to benefit the environment and at the same time provide product protection, maintenance of sterility and aseptic presentation. Consider also available options for end-of-life removal and destruction of the packaging to recover the components with a lower consumption of resources. The manufacture, use and removal of these materials have a broad environmental impact that should be considered.
Any interest in sustainable packaging should be discussed with your packaging supplier to help determine what options for sustainability are best for your application.