PCR in pharma packaging: A sustainable solution for tomorrow?

plastic waste

Amidst the growing concerns over plastic waste and the evolving landscape of environmental regulations, the pharmaceutical industry, known for its heavy reliance on plastic for various packaging needs, is facing a crucial challenge.

Plastic has long been favoured for its versatility, sterility, and its chemically inert nature, as well as being cost-effective for manufacturers. However, this reliance on plastics has led to a global waste problem, with the pharmaceutical industry responsible for 300 million tonnes of plastic waste per year, half of which is comprised of single-use plastics.

To address these concerns and adapt to the changing public perception, the industry is actively seeking innovative and more environmentally responsible approaches for incorporating plastic in both primary and secondary packaging.

One promising avenue is the adoption of PCR, encompassing Pre-Consumer or Post-Consumer Recycled materials. This approach involves repurposing recycled plastic sourced from end-users or utilising waste generated during the production process to create novel packaging systems.

In this article, I explore the growing utilisation of PCR in pharmaceutical packaging, discussing the benefits and challenges associated with this approach and the importance of a demand-driven, responsible, and pragmatic strategy to navigate this critical shift in the industry's packaging practices.

Understanding PCR and its environmental advantages

Distinguishing between Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) material and regrind material is crucial in understanding the eco-friendly shift in pharmaceutical packaging. PCR plastic is sourced from consumer-used products, while regrind material, in contrast, originates from the manufacturing process.

The use of PCR in pharmaceutical packaging holds substantial environmental advantages. Beyond the cost-effectiveness it offers to manufacturers, it emerges as a central player in mitigating plastic waste and diminishing carbon footprints. These notable benefits are in harmony with the pharmaceutical industry's escalating emphasis on sustainable practices.

Within the domain of pharmaceutical packaging, the incorporation of PCR marks a significant milestone. Manufacturers are actively adopting PCR in the production of plastic bottles, for example, thereby infusing packaging materials with a portion of recycled plastic. This progressive step underscores the industry's unwavering commitment to responsible environmental practices, while upholding the functionality and quality of their products.

How the pharma industry is tackling the complexities of PCR

To tackle the intricate issue of plastic pollution, it's imperative to adopt a pragmatic and comprehensive approach, recognising that PCR is not a one-stop solution.

In this context, the pharmaceutical industry must consider the current landscape of PCR availability and its inherent limitations as a material. These limitations encompass the potential risks of contamination and inconsistencies in the quality of recycled plastic.

A more responsible strategy will involve a thoughtful and measured approach of "designing in" recycled materials at a percentage that aligns with both the current market availability and the industry's production capacity. This approach aims to strike a delicate balance that avoids triggering excessive demand for recycled plastic which, if not carefully managed, could inadvertently lead to the production of more virgin plastic to compensate for any shortfalls.

By taking these factors into account, the industry can move closer to a sustainable and responsible utilisation of PCR in its ongoing efforts to combat plastic pollution.

A comprehensive vision for sustainable packaging

Using PCR in pharmaceutical packaging systems represents one means by which stakeholders can achieve their sustainability goals, offering a concrete way to address the problem of plastic pollution by reducing the demand for new plastic production and limiting environmental waste.

But the industry must take a more holistic, well-rounded approach that considers various aspects of the field, in order to create a more sustainable packaging future.

The pharmaceutical industry can actively participate in supporting a stable supply chain for PCR by investing in recycling infrastructures and collaborating with suppliers. In doing so, the industry can ensure a consistent source of recycled plastics for packaging. This not only reinforces environmental responsibility, but also supports a more sustainable and circular economy.

Apart from PCR, the pharmaceutical sector can explore other strategies to improve the environmental impact of its packaging. This may include the adoption of innovative bio-based plastics, which are derived from renewable sources, to reduce the environmental footprint of the pharma industry.

However, while these bio-based materials are renewable in the sense that they are sourced from natural fibres, like bamboo or sugarcane, this does not necessarily guarantee that they are capable of biodegrading, nor are they always compostable. Unlike plastic, which offers manufacturers reusability through recycling schemes, some ‘renewable’ bio-based packaging materials may not be as sustainable overall.

That’s why shifting towards a ‘sustainability by design’ model means manufacturers must consider environmental aspects at every stage of the packaging lifecycle, from design to disposal. Strategies for reducing both the weight and the volume of materials used in packaging can also have a significant impact on resource conservation and waste reduction.

By integrating these practical approaches, the pharmaceutical industry can make tangible progress towards a more sustainable future in packaging. It aligns with the global emphasis on sustainability and sets a responsible example for environmentally conscious practices within the broader packaging industry.

Steve Brownett-Gale
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Steve Brownett-Gale
30 November, 2023