When it comes to packaging, being green isn’t always what consumers always expect. The ubiquitous recycling symbol, for instance, has become the visual indicator of whether or not a product is environmentally friendly. But in pharmaceutical and medical device packaging, recyclability may not always be possible—or even preferable.
“It is difficult to use recyclable materials for primary containers for healthcare products,” explains Peter Macauley, director, global packaging technology, Abbott Nutrition. “Material selection depends upon finding the right materials that meet barrier, environment, and other functional requirements, and oftentimes that requires more than a recyclable single-layer structure.”
For instance, consider a milk-based nutritional product, Macauley says. “In order to store such a product without refrigeration, you need several material layers for barrier protection. Such a package may give you an 18- to 24-month shelf life without any of the energy required for refrigeration.” Such packaging successes may go unnoticed by consumers, Macauley notes, but they amount to energy savings, reduced product spoilage, and consumer safety.
In 2008, Abbott established internal “sustainability” guidelines for all new packages under development. Five main divisions—nutrition, pharmaceutical, vascular, diabetes, and diagnostics—united in a task force under Macauley’s oversight to think “sustainably” when designing all new packaging. “Our goal is to reduce the amount of packaging we use while still delivering a safe product. We first ensure that three tenants are met—product safety, functional packaging, and regulatory compliance—and then we dive into sustainability.”
Abbott has accomplished a lot simply by reducing packaging size and weight. For instance, Abbott Vascular introduced a new generation of its Emboshield filter with a reduced product packaging size and combined two internal parts into one pouch. The new package weighed 30% less than the original.
Also, Abbott redesigned the polystyrene clamshell packaging for its pharmaceutical product Lupron. A new plastic mold enabled the use of a thinner material, reducing plastic use by 12,750 pounds per year. The resulting packaging weight dropped from 0.976 ounces to 0.790 ounces, reducing use of polystyrene by 15.8%.
Abbott was also able to reduce the weight of plastic bottles for certain nutritional products by 8%, which will cut 2.7 million pounds of resin out of the product’s life cycle.
Abbott continues to look for additional means of cutting material use as well as the use of resources, such as energy and water. “Historically, Abbott has demonstrated a concern for the environment. We are very proud to have been included in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for five straight years,” Macauley says. “But packaging is very visible, so we attempt to continually improve our efforts.”
Abbott is also working diligently to screen suppliers and hold them to stringent requirements. “We seek to source materials from suppliers with sustainability programs in place, such as paperboard suppliers with certified renewable sources.”
Abbott also hopes that more recycling streams open up to handle multiple-layer materials. “We are seeing more and more streams trying to deal with more materials, but these channels still need to work on solutions,” Macauley says.