Finding the Right Recipe for Sustainability
Packaging plays a huge role product protection, especially when it comes to pharmaceuticals and sterile medical devices, points out Jason Crosby, medical business manager for Plastic Ingenuity Inc. (PI: Cross Plains, WI). At the same time, “there is a huge buzz in the industry: everyone is looking for the right recipe for packaging sustainability,” he notes. For one PI customer, Help Remedies, a molded fiber clamshell provided that recipe, resulting in a 2010 AmeriStar Packaging award in the Pharmaceutical/Drug Category.
“Companies are often looking for an alternative to plastic, and a pulp-based package made through a type-three molding process worked for Help Remedies,” explains Crosby. For comparison, egg cartons are often made from a type-one or type-two molding process.
The process PI developed involves using heated dies and molds and putting the pulp through a coining process that presses out moisture to produce a clamshell with a plastic-like finish.
PI has been experimenting with molded fiber for some time, exploring plastic alternatives for an electronics customer. It had purchased an older pulp-handling machine and, leveraging its plastic thermoforming capabilities, determined what it needed to do for a type-three process.
Slurry is created on site, using recycled or virgin materials. The slurry is applied to a pulp screen mold in thicknesses ranging from 20 to 60 mil. It then goes through the multiple-step in-line coining process in which it is heated and pressed over and over.
Serendipitously, Help Remedies contacted PI, also looking for unique packaging alternatives for its new product line. To create a compact-like clamshell that would serve as secondary packaging, PI collaborated with a design firm and an injection molder that provided a bioplastic holder to frame the molded pulp.
PI is exploring the use of molded pulp for other healthcare products and is testing it in some applications that involve sterilization.
The real challenge is for medical device manufacturers seeking alternatives for the sterile barrier system. “To date, the solutions have been downgauging and consolidation to a universal packaging format for multiple products, both of which result in source reduction,” notes Crosby.
Expense does come into play as well. “Sustainability is an excellent idea in concept. But at the end of the day, it does come down to cost. Companies are willing to pay a little more for sustainable solutions, but not a lot more,” he says.
Some customers come to PI with such projects, but PI also goes to its customers to point out potential ideas for being more sustainable. “Medical device companies [each] have different package performance needs,” says Crosby. “We have been involved in projects in which companies had to maximize the cubic inches occupied in a truck, to take 10% of materials out of a package, or to reduce a footprint by 25%. The latter project produced a more complicated thermoformed tray with a different product orientation, for instance, so we are considering product loading and end-use intuition right now.”
What the medical industry needs right now is to find and cut out its own “yogurt lid,” Crosby says, pointing to the yogurt industry’s switch from plastic lids to single foil top webs. “Medtronic’s switch to cases typically used for DVDs to hold its large family of stylets is pretty close to the yogurt lid change, and there has to be other potential changes out there.”
In the meantime, Crosby advises healthcare product manufacturers to keep a close eye on whether their suppliers themselves are sustainable. “Look at a supplier’s sustainability programs in terms of energy and resource reduction and recycling efforts,” he says. PI, for instance, has made a huge effort in these areas over the last 30 years to reduce its water and energy use, Crosby reports.
And don’t take your eyes off bioplastics, he says. “Interest is high, progress is rapid, and the technology is changing. Pay attention!”