The sustainable packaging market is forecast to reach a value of $142.4 billion by 2015 according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts (GIA). A growing awareness of the environmental hazards related to the disposal and recycling of packaging waste as well as government initiatives and increasingly stringent packaging regulations are among the factors driving this growth, but medical device companies are still lagging behind their personal care, food service and shipping counterparts.

"The important thing is that companies recognise that it is a whole system perspective; it has to be viewed from the perspective of the whole lifecycle and the entire supply chain."

While a handful of medical device manufacturers such as Baxter, Bayer, Johnson & Johnson and Cambridge Consultants are widely recognised for their commitment to sustainability, the majority have not yet managed to implement any significant shift towards environmentally friendly packaging.

Sterilisation requirements, safety regulations and biocompatibility are all partly to blame for this, but with customers, governments and other stakeholders increasingly interested in the materials and chemical substances used in products and packaging, the medical device industry needs to begin rethinking its strategy. 

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s definition of sustainable packaging essentially boils down to eight key criteria. Packaging should:

  • be beneficial, safe and healthy to individuals and communities through its life cycle
  • meet market criteria for performance and cost
  • be sourced, manufactured, transported and recycled using renewable energy
  • optimise the use of renewable or recycled source material
  • be manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices
  • be made from materials healthy in all probable end-of-life scenarios
  • be physically designed to optimise materials and energy
  • be effectively recovered and utilised in biological or industrial closed-loop systems.

There are currently no medical device companies using totally sustainable packaging, but, as Katherine O’Dea, senior fellow at GreenBlue, highlights, this is the same across all industries. "It’s difficult for any company to meet all the sustainability criteria at this point," she notes. "The important thing is that companies recognise that it is a whole system perspective; it has to be viewed from the perspective of the whole lifecycle and the entire supply chain."

The first thing medical device manufacturers must therefore do is understand the overall vision of what sustainable packaging is. "Then they can set some priority goals and look at what is achievable for them in the short term," says O’Dea.

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They may be able to incorporate recycled contents into a package if they work closely with their suppliers and fully understand the regulations and the performance criteria.

One company that has already begun this process is Baxter, which works to address environmental issues across the lifecycle of its products. "This ranges from sustainable design and bioethics during research and development, to efficient use of energy and materials during manufacturing and transport, to appropriate product advertising and promotion, and finally, responsible repair, refurbishment and recycling at product end-of-life," says Art Gibson, vice-president, environment, health and safety at Baxter.

"The first and most important thing to consider is how much packaging is really necessary to meet a device’s performance requirements."

Baxter is also working to decrease the ecological impact of packaging by reducing the amount used and substituting more environmentally preferable materials. Its Sustainability Steering Committee keeps on top of the company’s long-term strategic planning and daily activities; each senior member is responsible for developing goals and achieving progress within one of Baxter’s sustainability priorities.

O’Dea is keen to point out that other medical device companies are getting there too – albeit very slowly. "If you look at the membership of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition for example, we are seeing an increasing number of pharmaceutical companies, many of which are also medical device companies, beginning to embrace and work towards that sustainable vision," she says. "They’re using more sustainable packaging – it might be more recyclable or use less material – or they’re moving to innovative renewable materials. Overall, companies are stretching to meet the criteria and working progressively towards that goal."

There are still a number of challenges to be faced, including regulation. "Everything needs to be done in consort with the regulatory bodies," O’Dea emphasises. "Companies need to understand what the regulations are and talk to the regulatory agencies to comprehend if an additional layer of packaging is actually needed for sterilisation and protection, for example, or to ensure the safety of the product. Then they need to work with their suppliers to innovate on the packaging design. Perhaps there is a different way to provide that extra layer of protection without an extra layer of packaging."

To keep informed of the latest trends and legislation, Baxter’s cross-functional European environmental health and safety (EHS) task force assesses existing, new and emerging environmental regulations in Europe to identify and prioritise critical business issues.

"This helps the company develop positions and strategies aimed at improving its environmental performance," says Gibson. "A global EHS team also monitors similar regulations worldwide, while a cross-functional REACH (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) team oversees the company’s ongoing response to this regulation and explores further opportunities to eliminate hazardous substances."

For O’Dea, the first and most important thing to consider is how much packaging is really necessary to meet a device’s performance requirements. This is a priority Baxter has taken to heart, and during 2009 it implemented projects that achieved an annualised reduction of 933t of corrugated cardboard consumption. This took the total annualised savings since 2007 to 1,410t.

One of these projects involved a move towards smaller shipping cartons for home dialysis patients. In the US, the smaller cartons reduced storage space by 30% while decreasing the packaging materials, corrugated pallet slip sheets and plastic shrink wrap required for transport. Since 50% more cases fit on each pallet, the company will use around 49,000 fewer corrugated pallet slip sheets each year, leading to a reduction of 1,200 truck loads.

Once companies have looked at reducing the amount of packaging, the next step for O’Dea is material alternatives. "Flexible pouches are definitely something to look at," she says. "They are quite strong, reduce a lot of material use and can be effective in replacing bulkier kinds of packaging. The issue with flexibles is that they’re currently not recyclable, so they will end up in landfill and that’s a trade-off to consider."

This is where chemical recycling methodologies come in, although according to O’Dea that technology is still evolving and expensive so it will be a number of years before it is a common option. "At that point there will be a more positive end-of-life solution for flexible packaging, so companies should certainly be looking at it," she says.

New waste-energy solutions, such as plasmification and pyrolysis, are also set to change the face of sustainable packaging for medical devices, particularly when it comes to disposables. "A lot of medical waste will probably never be able to be handled in a closed loop in the way material from a syringe can be recycled into another syringe," O’Dea acknowledges. "But we can recoup the embedded energy in that material and use it as a way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and complement the renewable energy grid."

She believes medical device companies should be watching waste energy development and looking for local solutions. One issue O’Dea is particularly eager to emphasise is the cost effectiveness of sustainability. "Companies should no longer think of the movement towards more environmental packaging as a cost, but as an opportunity to find cost reductions," she remarks.

From a reduction in material used to lowered transportation costs, money can be saved in a variety of areas. "You can eliminate an external package or a secondary or tertiary piece of packaging," says O’Dea. "A lot of people think using recycled or renewable material costs more, but the markets are actually quite volatile, and in some instances you can get recycled content at lower cost than virgin materials."

Moreover, clean production technologies, internal operational efficiencies and the way the material is used in the production processes can all contribute to reduced costs. In Europe in 2008, for example, Baxter redesigned its Physioneal PD solutions packaging, reducing its weight by 31%. These changes produced yearly savings of approximately $1.3 million in 2009 including savings in freight while also decreasing waste and greenhouse gas emissions associated with shipping. 

Product design and development firm Cambridge Consultants and Abbott have also implemented effective sustainability projects across their organisations. Cambridge Consultants recently designed a ‘green’ pre-filled syringe, ‘Syreen’, which aims to reduce the material wastage usually associated with traditional syringe development and manufacture, while Abbott is in the process of implementing no less than 40 sustainable packaging initiatives. The Dow Jones Sustainability World Index ranks the company among the top 300 of the largest companies worldwide in terms of sustainability.

With sustainability becoming an increasingly pressing priority in the medical device sector, the pressure is on for other medical device manufacturers to begin considering how to make their business practices more environmentally friendly. The first step, O’Dea concludes, is to "look at the vision, select some issues that seem achievable over a timescale, and then begin to work with suppliers on those specific goals and objectives."