The large quantities of consumable plastics used in day-to-day life science research does not go unseen. It is estimated that scientific research consumes approximately 5.5 million metric tonnes of plastic globally per year. Additionally, it is estimated that the pharmaceutical industry generates nearly 55% more toxic carbon emissions than the automotive industry, of which the generation of plastic packaging is a driving force. The pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors are driven by a need to improve the welfare of society, and as such, environmental sustainability in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industry must be a focal point for current and future STEM professionals.
Moving towards sustainable packaging in science
As governments move towards reducing the usage of single-use plastics, the life science and pharmaceutical industries must also take heed and consider sustainable alternatives for plastic packaging. Over the last decade, the pharmaceutical industry has begun to pursue several strategies to improve the sustainability of their products, including “light-weighting” and changing packaging formats.
“Light-weighting” in the pharmaceutical industry involves the generation of thinner, lighter, plastic containers for reagents and medication. In 2018, jARDEN Plastic Solutions worked with manufacturers SACMI group and Milliken & Company to reveal new sustainable pharmaceutical bottles. These bottles are made of high-density polyethylene using a sustainable plastic production method known as “compression blow forming”. This resulted in the generation of bottles that maintain necessary barrier protection but reduced plastic consumption for manufacturing by up to 28%. However, many of these specialized packages are still single-use and often not made of recyclable materials, which compounds on the issues of disposal.
Changing packaging formats to more sustainable materials is also a strategy being employed by the pharmaceutical and scientific research industries. A notable example is the transition of drug blister packaging from the traditional polyvinyl chloride (PVC) material to recycled polyethylene terephthalate (RPET), or even specialty paper, which is an entirely plastic-free alternative to traditional blister packaging. In addition to alternative plastics, other “green” biodegradable materials have been explored in the pharmaceutical industry. In 2020, Natupharma developed fully recyclable plastic from sugarcane, which has the benefit of degrading in 10 years time as opposed to traditional plastics that take hundreds of years to degrade. As of October 2021, companies such as Astellas Pharma have been using sugarcane-extracted plastics to comprise 50% of their material for developing blister packaging. More recently, Huhtamaki, a notable pioneer of sustainable packaging, developed a blister package made up of an aluminum-free, mono-material PET, significantly increasing the recyclability of the product. While these alternatives provide a positive outlook, their implementation poses difficulty. When new eco-friendly materials are being researched, scientists must assess their environmental impact as well as meet stringent requirements for pharmaceutical packaging. This is often easier to overcome with secondary or tertiary packaging that do not come into direct contact with the product, but less so with primary packaging.
Despite these challenges, the future looks promising for alternative packaging in the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors. Although we are continuing to further the development of eco-materials for packaging, environmentalists and researchers agree that the one of the best strategies to combat increases in single-use plastic is reduction.
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