Regulated down to the last corners of the production halls. Highly innovative. Critically monitored by the public when – as now – many of their products are in short supply. And always: astonishingly sustainable. That is the pharmaceutical industry.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, the pharmaceutical industry has been striving to achieve ambitious sustainability goals. With some clever initiatives: at Novartis, for example, 96% of necessary solvents are used more than once. At Sanofi, CO2 emissions have been reduced by 27% in just five years.
But there is also the other side of such actually beautiful balances: the pharmaceutical industry is responsible for around 300 million tons of plastic waste per year worldwide, making it one of the leaders among all industries. "What the consumer doesn't notice directly are the many sterile-packaged aids such as scissors or tubes. This hygienic safety then also has times effects up to the tertiary packaging. The waste is then not generated by the consumer, but in the practices, hospitals or by doctors in general," says PACOON managing director Peter Désilets.
The many functions of pharmaceutical packaging
Which brings us quickly to packaging. And an important difference to almost all other industries in which packaging is required: with medicines in particular, packaging and product are an almost indissoluble unit. And as with many products, packaging must also fulfill many functions in the pharmaceutical sector. It protects the product, it helps with the correct dosage, and it is also an important carrier of instructions for use. What it is less of in the case of prescription drugs, however, is an incentive to buy. After all, anyone who is prescribed a drug by a doctor will take that drug or a generic, no matter what the packaging looks like. "This distinguishes the packaging design of OTC products and over-the-counter goods – over the counter and on and in front of the counter, here the design of the package and also the package concept is essential incentive to buy," as Peter Désilets knows from many design projects of his agency PACOON.
Back to the drawing board
All these factors contribute to the fact that the path to sustainable packaging is less broad in the pharmaceutical industry in particular than in other, less sensitive sectors. And yet, drug manufacturers are struggling to find alternatives to previous materials, for example: They are developing novel solutions such as plant-based packaging made from sugar cane or corn starch. Green PE, an ethylene-based bioplastic, can be used as an alternative to PVC or PET blister packs, which are necessary but not biodegradable or recyclable. This massively reduces CO2 emissions. And at the same time, Green PE is just as recyclable as fossil PE packaging.
Others are striving to make packaging even more environmentally friendly, for example by printing necessary consumer information on the package as much as possible instead of having to spend even more space on package inserts. QR codes also offer a space- and thus resource-saving way to communicate consumer information in detail. But legislation often doesn't even allow this yet, although since Corona everyone has presumably learned and internalized how to use QR codes. It would also be possible to inform consumers in a much more individualized way. One thing always remains the top priority: patient safety.
However, this also means that in the pharmaceutical industry in particular, a strategy for more sustainable packaging also requires a return to the drawing board, because every change in packaging in this segment can have a massive impact on the sensitive product and thus also on consumer safety. Cosmetic changes are usually not enough, because they could cause a regulatory conflict. For example, attention must be paid to counterfeit protection, and just as often to child safety or senior citizen friendliness – and all of this is stipulated in many paragraphs.
The material decision is accompanied by legislative hurdles: new packaging in the pharmaceutical sector undergoes conformity tests that range from the use of the right printing inks to the use of adhesives to steam or oxygen permissibility. "The risk of converting packaging is often based on the need to prove for years that the packaging will not cause adverse effects. If the packaging is also linked to the approval, in the worst case a new packaging can lead to drugs that have been approved for decades suddenly coming under scrutiny again. Of course, the manufacturer does not want to take this risk. That's why packaging developments in the pharmaceutical sector require such long lead times," says Peter Désilets. However, there are already attempts to replace plastic blister packs with coated paper and cardboard. But here, too, the rule is to play it safe and test first!
Test run for new pharmaceutical packaging
Testing every new package and thus ultimately meeting regulations also costs money, of course – and tests under real-time conditions, i.e. on the market, are out of the question anyway. So technologies such as 3D visualization have to be used to simulate at least some of the functions of a new package. Only then can the presses start running for the first time.
Another way for pharmaceutical companies to approach more sustainable packaging technologies, escaping some complex challenges for the time being, is also the OTC market, i.e. the market of those drugs that can be bought over the counter; or in the case of over-the-counter products and dietary supplements. That's where customer reaction can also be analyzed. There, design then also plays a greater role: "Whereas a few years ago the packages were rather old-fashioned, the change towards more OTC products, over-the-counter goods and many nutritional supplements has significantly changed the design in many areas, even in the drugstore business," says PACOON Managing Director Peter Désilets.
Yes, it's complicated with sustainability and packaging in the pharmaceutical sector. But on the other hand: the pharmaceutical industry in particular traditionally assumes responsibility for society as a whole: through research and innovation, through its efforts to make our society healthier and more fear-free overall. It will also have to do this development work on the subject of packaging.