Sustainability a Growing, but not the Leading, Concern

A majority of packaging professionals involved in pharmaceutical or medical product manufacturing report a growing corporate emphasis on sustainable packaging. However, cost and operational efficiency, not sustainability, will have the greatest impact on corporate strategies in the coming years. These findings were reported in the 2010 Sustainble Packaging Study commissioned by PMP News sister publication Packaging Digest. The study included input from consumer packaged goods companies (including pharmaceuticals and medical devices) along with input from packaging material, machinery, and service providers. (For the purposes of this article, medical respondents will be the term used to describe any respondent who indicated they are involved in packaging pharmaceuticals and medical devices).

According to the study, 59% of medical respondents say that their companies’ emphasis on sustainability has increased, while 39% say it has stayed the same and only 3% say it has decreased. In addition, 58% have found that customer interest in sustainable packaging has increased, while 40% say it has stayed the same and only 2% say it has decreased.

Waste reduction is the top approach medical respondents use to implement sustainable practices. Seventy-seven percent are reducing waste, while 57% are downgauging or reducing use of materials and 56% are conserving energy. Just over half (52%) are collecting for recycling, and 38% and 34% are seeking more sustainable processing and more productive packaging machinery, respectively.

Managing costs and driving efficiencies are higher corporate priorities than sustainability. For instance, when given the ability to select three business factors as having the greatest impact on corporate strategic direction, 34% of medical respondents selected managing costs. Operational efficiency and pricing pressures were each selected by 33%, competition by 30%, and regulatory requirements by 25%. Sustainability was selected by 24% of medical respondents.

Nonetheless, company policies do include specific guidelines pertaining to sustainability. Sixty-three percent of medical respondents report guidelines for energy consumption, 56% report those for recycled content specifications, and 46% cover new design guidelines. And 43% ban or limit the use of specific materials or chemicals, while 37% cover water consumption.

Medical respondents are wary of greenwashing. Seventy-six percent believe that minimum standards of performance should be required before packagers can market themselves as “green.” Writes one medical respondent: “It has clouded the customers’ understanding of being ‘green.’ With no set standard, they pose artificial standards for being green that may not be attainable or are useless because the rest of the process and materials have no sustainability.”

Another medical respondent writes: “All the greenwashing in the world is useless if the medical devices or their sterile accessories appear cheaper or less safe. Any PERCEIVED threat to confidence in sterilization would be a catastrophe that would destroy any greenwashing savings. The ability to use E-Labeling instead of manuals bigger than the product would be the biggest savings we could easily imagine.”

Thirty-one percent believe that the federal government should set “green” standards, while 27% and 25% believe that independent third-party programs and trade associations, respectively, should set those standards.

“I believe a global body that is able to monitor and introduce a set of metrics and requirements will aid those smaller countries with direction and support that will give them the skills, knowledge, and support to compete worldwide,” explains one medical respondent.

However, writes another: “Agreed-upon metrics used worldwide is the responsibility of industry, not government. Without industry providing these metrics, less knowledgeable government staff people will establish metrics that will likely be confusing, imprecise, contradictory, and less relevant.”

Adds another: “There are too many ways to fudge an LCA [life-cycle analysis]. Recently, we have seen comparative studies by glass, metal, and PET beverage containers and each made claims about superior sustainability measures. I feel strongly that plastic packaging has a good story to tell when a fair analysis is done. I’m not afraid of a fair fight, but I think the average person looks at these kinds of claims today with a jaded eye.”

The survey was conducted by Terri Solomon of Solomon Research for Packaging Digest magazine and was fielded in October 2010. Of the total 630 respondents, 187 of them identified themselves as being involved in some manner in either pharmaceutical/OTC or medical devices/supplies packaging, among other fields. For more survey findings based on the input from medical respondents, please see the December 2010 issue of PMP News.

This article was originally published as the November 30 ePackage Newsletter.

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