Medical Packaging and Sustainability
By Alison Tyler
Beacon Converters Inc. (Saddle Brook, NJ)
There is no question that sustainability is important for medical packaging. It is crucial for myriad reasons. The approach may be different in medical packaging because the consequences of packaging failures could be catastrophic. Material failures could result in loss of sterility and potentially lead to human fatalities. When the stakes are that high, material selection and package design choices are of primary importance.
That said, medical packaging is not excluded from the sustainability table. All industries that deal with packaging must address sustainability for the health of the planet and for the health and longevity of the very markets they serve. The drivers of medical packaging are primarily to allow for sterilization of the device, protect the device from damage, allow the sterility to be maintained until the device is used, and facilitate aseptic presentation (if applicable). Sustainability of the material source is not a primary driver in the package design process—yet.
More and more companies are looking at the materials that they are using and asking the question of how sustainable or earth friendly the material is. Tyvek is made of 100% virgin high density polyethylene. This is one of the most readily recycled polymers across the globe. Is Tyvek being recycled? In most cases, no. Often there is no infrastructure to sort and recycle medical packaging waste at the point of use. However, there is opportunity to reclaim the HDPE and recycle it.
Another material that is commonly used in medical packaging is aluminum (foils). This is typically a layer in a lamination. Some argue that aluminum is one of the most environmentally sound packaging materials for its ability to be recycled countless times with little to no degradation in properties. Others argue that the energy required to make aluminum from bauxite makes it one of the least environmentally friendly materials. Regardless of your position, currently there is no widely developed mechanism to recover aluminum from laminate structures in medical packaging. If you were to compare the amount of packaging that would be required to deliver the same barrier properties as even one mil of aluminum in a structure, you would quickly conclude that it is a very efficient use of material to provide the protection from elements that degrade products that utilize aluminum—light, moisture, oxygen, etc.
Technology will influence the sustainability of medical and other packaging materials in the future. There are already companies that are looking at producing plastics from sustainable sources. For example, Dow is developing a technology that will allow them to produce polyethylene from sugar cane. DuPont has developed several polymers and elastomers from renewable resources such as soy and corn. These can be used in processes such as injection molding, blow molding, and extrusion, which make them likely candidates for the future in medical packaging.
While it is unlikely that medical packaging will be the pioneering force for adapting renewably sourced materials, once the materials are established and the appropriate tests can be performed to demonstrate suitability for use in medical packaging applications, medical packaging will play an important role in sustainability.