Why Life Science Brands Need to Consider Sustainable Packaging

March 25,2022 Category: Sustainability
Brands in the life sciences face unique challenges. Due to the nature of their products, pharmaceutical, medical device, and cell and gene therapy companies are highly regulated, with strict requirements for both their products and packaging. This high bar for sterility and consumer safety can limit brands’ sustainable packaging options. Though they don’t have as many choices as their counterparts in the CPG and food & Beverage industries, there are options to improve sustainability while also reducing costs.

The Problem

While their counterparts in less regulated industries have faced stronger consumer pressure so far, it’s only a matter of time before sustainability becomes a must-have priority for life science companies’ corporate responsibility programs.

The need is clear; pharmaceutical brands, for example, produced roughly the equivalent of 52 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2015, more than the 46-megaton equivalent produced by the global automotive production sector despite being 28% smaller by revenue. Some big players in the industry are already making big moves, as AstraZeneca, Novartis and GSK all plan to be carbon neutral by 2025 and carbon negative across their supply chains by 2030. Johnson & Johnson, Amgen Inc. and Roche Holding AG have all made similar pledges, along with goals like reducing their water and energy consumption.

Brands who don’t make sustainability a priority soon may soon see that consumer pressure turned on them directly or indirectly through healthcare providers. They may also find themselves with lots of catching up to do if regulations such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) become more common.

Getting Started

For many brands who haven’t already started on their sustainability journey, the problem may be that they don’t know where to start. A sustainability audit can be a powerful tool for overcoming that obstacle. An audit typically begins with an evaluation of the materials and processes used for packaging, along with a thorough review of the regulations and product needs behind those choices. The audit may also involve a life cycle assessment (LCA) that examines the environmental impact of the package through each stage of its life cycle, including raw material extraction/production, manufacturing, packaging and distribution, use, end of life and, potentially, recycling.

The outcome of the audit is a set of sustainability goals, a clear understanding of the options available for achieving those goals and a distinct set of steps and benchmarks for proceeding from the current state to the desired state of sustainable packaging.

Common Opportunities for Sustainability Improvement

Among the sustainability opportunities that are frequently available for brands in the life sciences, rightsizing packaging is one of the easiest to identify. Packaging often includes unnecessary plastic and paper that weighs down the product and can turn a relatively small package into something much larger. One of the ways brands can reach their sustainability goals is reduce the size and weight of their packaging. Redesigning your packaging components is a major driver of sustainable cost savings. If, for example, a package uses 20-point paperboard for a carton, it can likely be reduced to an 18-point paperboard, lessening paper consumption and packaging size. This provides both savings and sustainability improvement in the forms of less material purchased and used and in the form of shipping fuel consumption and costs saved because of reduced size and weight.

An organization can also streamline distribution through primary, secondary and tertiary packaging optimization. Pallets are an easy place to start. Maximizing the pallet load size can allows more product per shipment. This can also lead to fewer trucks on the road, reducing both emissions and fuel costs.

Another common opportunity to improve a brand’s impact on the environment is through the elimination of harmful packaging materials. Many non-recyclable materials, such as EPS foam, are easily replaceable by more sustainable options. Thoughtful changes to your packaging’s design and material usage can lead to significant cost savings and advancement in sustainability.

Broader Opportunities for a Brand

Sustainability programs can extend beyond the packaging department. A brand’s options may not be immediately obvious, but they are numerous. A carbon offset program helps reduce or remove carbon emissions or greenhouse gasses to make up for emissions created elsewhere. Planting trees to offset paper your facility uses is a great example of a carbon offset program that doesn’t require a lot of work or maintenance. Organizations like our partners at One Tree Planted can help a brand create its program.

Purchasing carbon credits is another option. Carbon credits put a limit on carbon emissions and require the purchase of additional credits to exceed the emissions cap - if not, excess carbon credits can be sold, providing a monetary incentive to reduce emissions.

Several of the major players in the life science industry are working towards net zero emissions. If power consumption is a threat to a brand’s sustainability goals, renewable power can be an appealing alternative. Another way to reduce emissions is by acquiring materials from a supplier in a confined radius from the manufacturing facility. This will reduce emissions and help limit fuel consumption. An agnostic approach to packaging materials opens up supplier options that can help contribute to sustainability, cost optimization and product protection benefits.

While sustainable packaging is more relevant now than ever, there are several organizations working in the sustainable life science packaging arena; and there are case studies, historical data, and regulatory information to back up their work. The Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council and Sustainable Packaging Coalition offer an abundance of resources for organizations to utilize.

Working with the Experts

With a combined 1,500 years of experience in the packaging industry, the Adept Group team includes leading experts in the life science industry with the knowledge and resources to deliver cost-effective sustainable solutions for your organization. We work with leading global brands to reduce risk, increase speed to market, improve sustainability and remove barriers to compliance. If you’re ready to take your sustainability initiatives to the next level, we’re happy to discuss how we can help you with your unique packaging challenges. Reach out to our team.