Sustainable healthcare packaging is no longer a trend — it’s a given, but the healthcare industry has long been behind the curve. Granted, there are many examples where safety must be prioritized —for example, if a packaging material has come into contact with a hazardous substance — but the fact remains that hospitals generate an average of nearly 30 lbs. of waste per bed every day. However, 80-85% of this waste is considered to be non-hazardous, and therefore not necessarily require permanent disposal. Both carbon usage and plastic waste reduction are now more important than ever, and the healthcare industry has an opportunity to seize on new innovations that can make a significant impact in terms of its sustainability credentials.
Of course, there are challenges that are common to healthcare packaging. For example, medical device and pharmaceutical packaging is not going to be reusable, nor will it be made of compostable materials. However, what it can be is recyclable, and it is this recyclability that is the key to delivering sustainable packaging in this industry. Both medical device packaging and pharmaceutical packaging can transition to recyclable materials.
The importance of mono-material solutions for sustainable healthcare packaging
It is a balancing act for healthcare and pharma product producers because while delivering greater sustainability is vital, the core focus must always be the protection of the product and the safety of the patient. More recently, mono-material solutions — meaning one type of plastic that is recyclable with existing capabilities — can play well in both areas. Medical forming films are a case in point, as many are manufactured using multi-layer nylon/PE or ionomer/PE. These films can now be replaced with a polyethylene-based single material that has the same ability to withstand the sterilization processes required for medical devices, and the ability to meet the requirements of a demanding regulatory landscape while being recyclable.
Another area of interest is blister packaging for medications. The commonly used PVC/foil combination is not recyclable, which is one of the main reasons pharma manufacturers worldwide are attempting to eliminate it. By using Amcor’s AmSky™ mono-material system, manufacturers can produce a recyclable blister package that maintains the moisture barrier properties of PVC/foil or even surpasses them. My company, Amcor, has introduced AmSky, a proprietary HDPE mono-material package that is recycle-ready and provides an excellent moisture barrier to protect the shelf life of the medication inside. It can deliver a 76% reduction in carbon footprint and a 77% reduction in non-renewable energy demand for production when compared with PVC/foil alternatives.
Reliable production is key
From a production perspective, there are good reasons to move forward with mono-materials for sustainable packaging. Established technologies such as HDPE often do not require tooling changes, and in terms of blister packaging, coding, and marking the substrate is printable using traditional technologies. In addition, the use of existing plastics delivers far greater design flexibility to support traditional and new opening features, as well as child-resistant safeguards, which are constantly evolving with patient needs.
Lastly, there is also the opportunity to source these mono-materials from a single supplier, meaning supply chains can be simplified and quality and availability assured. With blister packs, for example, lids and bases of the same material coming from a single supplier alleviate the risk of shortages or delays for one component of the packaging.
The need for sustainable packaging is only going to grow, and if medical device and pharma manufacturers want to meet their sustainability goals, breakthrough a crowded marketplace and make a difference for the environment, it’s time to take advantage of the advances in materials we are seeing today. By utilizing recyclable mono-materials in our healthcare packaging, we can overcome barriers to sustainability, provide safety for patients and reduce plastic waste.