Pharmaceutical and medical device packaging professionals generally seem interested in sustainability, but only if the price is right. Respondents to two polls during PMP News’s exclusive Webcast, “Sustainability 101: Beyond Recycling—Sustainability in a Material World,” explained that some modifications to packaging components and projects will be made to achieve some level of sustainability. However, they also expressed a general unwillingness to pay more for certain changes.
Peter Schmitt, managing director of Montesino Associates, who led the Webcast, explained that “we need to [achieve sustainability] at an ever-decreasing cost and be conscious of the fact that costs are a major driver in healthcare packaging today.”
When asked what percentage of their current components and projects will be modified toward more-sustainable solutions within the next five years, 54% reported that at least 25% of their projects will be changed. Just under 9% will be converting 75–100% of their packaging projects into sustainable solutions. Consequently, only a slim majority will be going greener, leaving about 46% of respondents changing less than 25%.
“Sustainability is important, and there are only good messages in going green as we often hear negative feedback when our packaging is not perceived to be so. Generally speaking, going green may yield a reduction in total packaging cost, which is for the manufacturer, too,” explained Rich Hollander, senior director, packaging services, for Pfizer Global Manufacturing. He addressed audience questions along with Thomas Pack of Global Pharmaceutical Supply Group, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals. “In the 17 years I have been in packaging, I have seen significant improvements in source reduction. It is in our subconscious as we design packages these days. While we are not promoting all the green things we are doing as an industry, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.” Changes have typically been in secondary and tertiary packaging, rather than primary packaging, he added.
However, “People are not purchasing our products because of packaging,” explained Pack.
“All our materials go through an elaborate evaluation against our global packaging design guide, and we look at all environmental aspects and make the best decisions we can,” Pack added. “Everything will be thoroughly evaluated.”
When asked about replacing PVC, a material that has been targeted by environmental groups, respondents revealed somewhat restrained interest in dropping the material. For instance, 55.3% are interested only if cost is equal to or lower than current costs. Only 5.3% is willing to pay up to 20%, and the same percentage is willing to pay up to 50% more. Cost is not the main issue for 23.7% of poll respondents; the real driver is performance on existing equipment. Slightly more than 10% said they are not interested in moving out of PVC.
“PVC is one of the materials that require the least amount of energy to be produced,” explained Schmitt. “And it requires the least amount of energy to be converted.” In addition, rigid PVC, which is often used for pharmaceutical blister packages, does not contain plasticizers. Flexible PVC, frequently used for blood bags, often contains DEHP and can face incineration issues as part of the medical waste stream, so there are questions about toxicity, Schmitt explained. “In the rigid packaging arena, PVC looks to be a fairly sustainable material. However, flexible PVC faces much larger challenges,” he said.
During the live question-and-answer period, one attendee responded to Schmitt’s comments about rigid PVC being sustainable. He asked why the audience was even polled about moving out of PVC.
Pack characterized industry concerns over PVC. “Companies like J&J have been targeted by Greenpeace and others to get out of PVC. Maybe it is more perception than reality.”
Hollander complemented Pack’s statement by asking, “Why wouldn’t it cost less to get out of PVC?” concluded. “Why aren’t we driving our supply base toward developing materials that are less expensive and more environmentally friendly than PVC?”
Addressing another question about cost, Hollander said, “Going green often implies that there is an increased cost when focusing on primary packaging components, and perhaps that is true at the onset, but it doesn’t have to be long term. In my experience, there has to be a win-win [from a green perspective] and from a value proposition perspective. In fast-moving consumer goods, where the package helps sell the product . . . you can market [sustainability] and create a value proposition. It is very hard to find that value proposition in pharmaceutical packaging. The value in our products is in their therapeutic value, not necessarily in the packaging.”