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Sustainable Healthcare Packaging

As of 2022, healthcare and pharmaceutical professionals have observed four progressive sectors within pharmaceutical and healthcare packaging that will see current and modern-day packaging trends manifest and be implemented into various product designs. These four progressive sectors are (1) Direct-to-consumer services, also known as DTC (which will be very common within virtual healthcare and telemedicine), (2) e-commerce due to the surge of support in telemedicine, (3) home-based care applications, services, and products, as well as (4) sustainability practices that are geared towards optimizing a respective product's packaging.

Furthermore, in this article, I will focus on and address the current and modern-day packaging trends that are manifesting and being implemented into various product designs in the fourth progressive sector within pharmaceutical and healthcare packaging, which is sustainability. Within sustainability, I will focus on its practices that are geared towards optimizing a respective product's packaging. Moreover, there are four sustainable initiatives that are being set forth that I will highlight: reducing packaging complexity, reassessing packaging materials, reevaluating medical devices, and reconsidering recycling. All of these initiatives are avenues that make offering sustainable healthcare options possible.

First and foremost, let's discuss what reducing packaging complexity entails. Based on data collected by the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council, there is an exponential amount of medical waste being produced. It is estimated that hospitals in the United States produce 14,000 tons of waste per day! Therefore, downsizing and reducing the overall packaging required to produce a package is crucial and an effective way to eliminate excess medical waste. Achieving this feat will also simultaneously lower the carbon footprint of a product and meet required industry packaging regulations.

However, for some, accomplishing and striving towards this goal seems to be a stretch. Many believe that uptight and strict regulatory medical packaging environments will make OEMs reluctant to alter the packaging processes and materials required for the approved packaging of medical devices. Nevertheless, to provide more insight and clarification concerning that opinion, it should be noted that Josh Blackmore, a Global Healthcare Manager at M. Holland, encourages skeptics to reassess their stance on this matter due to the fact that “Eighty-five percent of hospital waste is non-hazardous. Reducing the amount of waste, particularly in medical and pharma packaging, is a great place to start when working toward more sustainable solutions.” Undoubtedly, altering the overall package design and optimizing the materials used to create medical packages will have an extremely positive effect on medical waste percentages, consequently proving the value of sustainability initiatives.

A real-life example of this are designers and manufacturers of medical packaging who utilize less or more innovative materials such as Zylar MBS. This new and innovative material is 15% lighter than other clear packaging materials commonly used within the medical packaging industry and has been proven to be more effective in protecting devices while also producing less waste. Additionally, this medical packaging is overall lighter in weight, requires less effort and resources to manufacture, and reduces not only transportation costs but also environmental impact.

Secondly, let’s address what reassessing packaging materials entails. This sustainable initiative emphasizes the importance of not just considering reassessing medical packaging materials for the sake of pursuing it on a surface level whenever it seems feasible. Instead, this pursuit should be rooted in a thorough reassessment of medical packaging materials that ultimately updates and redesigns a respective medical packaging design while also ensuring that the design adheres to current safety standards. The level of patience and thoroughness required to achieve this goal can discourage many manufacturers and cause them to become leery of the overall outcome. However, becoming educated on the high-quality, innovative, and sustainable material options on the market, such as bioplastics, recycled materials, and specialty additives, can provide a sense of comfort to skeptics. These materials fill the void of the demands that come with redesigning and updating a packaging design. Furthermore, advancements in recycling technology have made it possible to convert "hard-to-recycle" plastic waste into recycled polymers that have the same properties as virgin polymers. Covestro's Makrolon and their creation of low carbon footprint RE polycarbonate are proof of the validity of this conversion while also demonstrating that the circular economy is supported by this conversion.

Apart from this, the conversion also does not limit the medical device's performance, regulatory compliance, or patient safety. Another individual at M. Holland, Debbie Prenatt, a Sustainability Marketing Manager, encourages people to consider a product's entire life cycle and simplify the number of materials needed to make the product during the design process of healthcare products. She goes on to state that "using multiple materials in medical devices and packaging complicates the ability to create a different product end-of-life story, as well as its ability to be recycled," and that "reducing the number and variety of materials helps promote a more sustainable and circular product journey overall." Moreover, 20% of the plastic waste found in many hospitals consists of mixed materials, which is indeed a threat to the recycling system/stream. Hence, the simplification of healthcare packaging devices makes the sorting and recycling process go a lot smoother. This is a key initiative that medical manufacturers can implement to improve a product's sustainability beyond creation.

Thirdly, let's consider the re-evaluation of medical devices. The foundation of creating a more efficient and sustainable healthcare industry is the industry's ability to design sustainable medical devices that meet the demands for manufacturing, patient use, and disposal while maintaining close coordination between the manufacturers of the product and the medical organizations themselves. There are many questions a designer should ask themselves, such as: could a single-use product be reusable to avoid unnecessary waste? Can the overall dimensions of the product be reduced to require less material and packaging? Also, are there suitable material substitutes that are sustainably produced or require less energy to manufacture? To answer these questions and achieve the overall goal of re-evaluating medical devices, personnel at M. Holland and the industry recommend that designers partner with their material suppliers to address any specific considerations or questions. This partnership will establish a closed-loop medical waste recycling system, and device recycling can be achieved at a moment's notice. Additionally, it is recommended that one material be utilized during the creation of complete devices or device elements, making the aforementioned recycling process easier while also prioritizing device elements so that they can be returned and remanufactured when needed.

Finally, let's analyze the reconsideration of recycling. There has been a preconceived notion within the medical packaging industry that medical device products are the only products that can be reused in a sustainable way, coupled with the linear take-make-dispose approach being at the forefront of the healthcare packaging industry. This notion has caused many within the industry to overlook the opportunity of utilizing hazardous waste to maximize material value and minimize waste disposal. In terms of non-hazardous medical waste packaging alternatives, this list includes plastic packaging, clean glass and plastic, paper and cardboard, food scraps, and office products. It's important to keep in mind that whenever there is a sense of urgency centered around prioritizing recycling, it's extremely important that recyclable products are clearly labeled to avoid being wasted by busy healthcare professionals. If necessary, medical personnel at the given hospital should be educated on the proper way to handle recyclable materials through clearly printed packaging instructions and vendor partnerships.

All things considered, injecting the medical packaging industry with sustainable alternatives results in cost savings, improved environmental impact, better brand reputation with customers and investors, and an added edge against non-sustainable competitors. However, it should not only be known but emphasized that the pursuit of sustainable changes should be rooted in ensuring that the products' sterility and efficacy are balanced with healthcare regulations and the patient’s overall needs. Similarly, manufacturers of medical device packaging firms should collaborate and partner with their selected vendors and facilities to design sustainable alternatives to their past devices that fulfill the device’s intended and original purpose.

References

“Improving Sustainability in Healthcare Packaging: M. Holland.” M. Holland Company, 27 Apr. 2022, https://www.mholland.com/market-insights/improving-sustainability-in-healthcare-packaging.

“Four Trends Driving Healthcare Product Packaging: ProAmpac Healthcare Flexible Packaging.” ProAmpac, https://www.proampac.com/en-us/whats-new/123/four-trends-driving-healthcare-product-packaging/.

30, Jan. “The Pursuit of Sustainable Medical Packaging.” Packagingdigest.com, 30 Jan. 2014, https://www.packagingdigest.com/smart-packaging/pursuit-sustainable-medical-packaging.

efficiency, Mauro writes about resource, et al. “Most EU Countries Set to Miss Deadline for Adoption of New Waste Laws.” META, 18 June 2020, https://meta.eeb.org/2020/06/18/most-eu-countries-set-to-miss-deadline-for-adoption-of-new-waste-laws/.

GreenBlue, https://greenblue.org/tertiary-packaging-and-compass-part-1/.

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