Historically, the characteristics of pharma packaging directly reflect the healthcare industry. Pharmaceutical companies have placed a premium on packaging that:

  • Precisely meets storage requirements (ensuring the drug remains contained and free from contamination)
  • Adheres to strict regulatory requirements
  • Enables the drug to go to market efficiently

These packaging traits were reinforced through the height of COVID-19, but now that the global supply chain and economy are stabilizing, the pharma industry must consider the environmental impact of its packaging.

The pharma industry is a profuse emitter of CO2, releasing more greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than the automotive sector. In fact, were the global healthcare sector a nation, it would rank as the fifth largest contributor to GHG emissions worldwide. Although drug manufacturing and the electricity consumption of pharmaceutical companies contribute substantially to emissions, approximately 75% of the industry's total emissions stem from its value chain (Scope 3). In particular, a notable fraction of these Scope 3 emissions originates from product packaging, constituting roughly 15% of the sector's total emissions. How can that be true?

Traditionally, primary pharma packaging is plastic and/or metal. Think about the blister packs used to package your cold or allergy medicine, for example. To produce those packs, the extraction of oil and metal from the earth was required, followed by energy-intensive manufacturing to form the materials so that the drugs are adequately protected. Then, once the consumer is finished with the pack, it cannot be recycled, so it goes to the landfill. This example is applicable across the industry because safeguarding the contents of the package is paramount.

Consumers/patients are increasingly considering sustainability factors when choosing products, including pharmaceuticals. They are also demanding that large companies be transparent about their environmental impacts and take measures to reduce them. Consumers aren't the only ones exerting pressure, as financial institutions are demanding increased transparency regarding environmental risk exposure and impact. And, if they operate on a global scale, they must adhere to internationally established regulations. Consequently, pharma companies are establishing targets to reduce emissions. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of life sciences firms committed to or setting Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) emission-reduction goals surged from 7 to 104.

Due to the significant proportion of emissions originating from the pharmaceutical value chain, companies are increasingly focusing on Scope 3 emissions. This includes scrutinizing packaging as a notable source of emissions and exploring its potential for reduction. Safety regulations can often limit primary pharma packaging to substrates that provide impermeable barriers (such as plastic or metals), which makes it imperative to realize sustainability gains with secondary packaging.

Secondary packaging has traditionally been undervalued in pharmaceuticals, despite its critical importance. From a product safety standpoint and according to industry guidance, it must protect the product inside from the elements (temperature, light, moisture, reactive gasses, rough handling, microbial intrusion), with different requirements for different drugs. It must also be constructed with non-hazardous materials that might leach/migrate into the drug, causing harmful contamination.

So, what sustainability enhancements can we consider while adhering to these restrictive requirements?

Here are four options:

  • Secondary packaging can and should be made entirely from renewable materials. While plastics often present the optimal choice for primary packaging, opting for non-fossil-based alternatives for secondary packaging is a reliable and sustainable solution. 
  • The packaging should be made materially efficient. This shift would translate into less raw material extraction and use, reduced energy and water consumption during production, lower transportation weight, and minimized material disposal in landfills.
  • Target suppliers who have had success reducing their own production emissions through initiatives such as switching from fossil- to bio-based production energy or investing in operational efficiency.
  • Finally, secondary packaging should be easily recyclable in standard waste streams. This typically requires a mono-material design (or at least easily separable) that is paper-based.

McKinsey’s recent study suggests that by redesigning packages or products and adopting low-carbon packaging materials, it's possible to slash up to 90% of total packaging emissions by 2040.

Paperboard packaging is commonly used as secondary packaging in the pharma industry because it can meet all the requirements mentioned above. The grades dominating the U.S. market are Solid Bleached Sulphate (SBS) for its printability and Coated Recycled Board (CRB) for its perceived sustainability. However, these paperboards are mostly heavier due to their composition and material use, and they are often produced with mostly fossil-based energy.

Metsä Board conducted carbon footprint assessments, and the results were verified by IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute, where SBS and CRB grades were compared to Folding Boxboard (FBB), a grade known for its printability and a lightweight composition that does not compromise quality and strength. These assessments demonstrated that transitioning from SBS to FBB can reduce the carbon footprint of packaging by over 50%. Similarly, replacing CRB with FBB can yield a reduction of 60% or more. These reductions can be attributed to FBB’s lightweight design and the production energy mix, which currently runs on 90% fossil-free energy.

We should not be sacrificing sustainability for adequate product safety, or vice versa. It has now become achievable to balance sustainability with product safety and efficacy in pharma packaging. Therefore, the responsibility falls on pharmaceutical companies to acknowledge this opportunity and take the necessary steps to minimize their value chain emissions, thus assuming a pivotal role in combating climate change.