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Manufacture Packaging, Trends & Forecasts

The Age of Upcycling Is Here

Credit: Author supplied

For packaging professionals who do business in Europe, there has been a key topic on our minds recently: EU officials are moving steadily towards a binding, continent-wide framework concerning packaging sustainability, including healthcare and pharma. Expected to be finalized as early as spring 2024, the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) is poised to turn guidelines into guardrails, mandating meaningful movement towards a more eco-friendly, circular packaging materials landscape.

The overarching goal of the PPWR is to ensure all packaging is reusable or recyclable in an economically feasible way. The PPWR requires boosting recycled content uptake, eliminating overpackaging, and reducing packaging waste. Understandably, given healthcare’s unique role in keeping patients safe and protecting mission-critical medicines, the law is likely to grant a five-year extension to the sector, postponing recyclability mandates until 2035 rather than 2030, as for other industries. 

Considering the materials science hurdles that must be overcome to meet this delayed yet (in my opinion) still ambitious deadline, savvy pharma packaging suppliers are diligently working to create solutions that offer recyclability without sacrificing drug safety and efficacy. In fact, we’re already seeing successes above and beyond the common-sense use of recyclable mono-material constructions for drugs without elevated barrier requirements. For example, a recyclable blister package has been developed that combines a barrier against moisture with transparency for ease of inline inspection. 

Still, this promising progress leaves an elephant in the room: what about the other end of the packaging life cycle when the user discards the packaging? Recyclability addresses the conclusion of a package’s usage, but what steps are being taken to improve its inception? 

Unfortunately, the short-term answer is “not much.” This inaction is partly due to the pending PPWR law, which exempts healthcare packaging from any benchmarks for post-consumer recycled (PCR) content. Logically then, pharma packaging providers are prioritizing PPWR’s purview over packaging’s back end – namely, recyclability – while disregarding front end sustainability. Recycling stream viability has taken center stage, relegating issues such as PCR content to the regulatory sidelines.

Buttressing PPWR’s hands-off approach toward recycled content in pharma packaging is a blend of sound reasoning and long-standing precedent, including pharmacopeia language prohibiting the use of scrap material and insisting that any recycled materials incorporated into packaging solutions be properly validated. All of this has severely discouraged PCR content’s utilization for primary pharmaceutical and medical packaging. The rationale is clear and justifiably uncompromising: for patient safety’s sake, there can be no risk of contamination entering the supply chain, and current mechanical recycling processes cannot guarantee this. 

This precedent exemplifies the historic cautiousness of the pharma industry, where being a sustainability pioneer could backfire. Notably, detrimental consequences of incorporating PCR content into primary packaging wouldn’t even require in-field failure; the mere perception of a package providing less product protection could significantly impact its acceptance and, through it, a company’s bottom line. Simply put, pharma players are hesitant to stick their necks out for fear of exposing their heads. 

Increasingly, though, technology is changing pharma’s entrenched risk-reward assessment of PCR. Flying fast into these headwinds is the advancement and proliferation of next-level forms of chemical plastics recycling that significantly reduce the risk of materials contamination versus mechanical recycling processes, and ultimately produce virgin-quality resins that meet pharma’s unparalleled purity standards. In my view, we are at the dawn of a new era in pharma packaging sustainability – one where recycled plastics and patient safety are companions rather than competitors. 


Like any nascent enterprise, incorporating PCR plastics into primary pharma packaging means developing concise, coherent best practices. One crucial issue concerns the fact that, from a recyclability standpoint, not all plastic resins are created equal – and these discrepancies require differing recycling methods. Let’s look at three common substrates used in pharma packaging: polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polyethylene (PE), and polypropylene (PP). 

As mentioned, conventional mechanical recycling cannot produce pharma-grade plastics – at least not yet. However, PET has proven highly conducive to what could be considered the next level of recycling complexity: chemical recycling. Sometimes referred to as advanced recycling, chemical recycling breaks plastics down into their original building blocks in a process known as depolymerization. The result is a recycled resin essentially identical in its chemical makeup to virgin, fossil fuel-derived resins. 

PE and PP are more complex. Both require a more rigorous decomposition process, resulting in a substance called feedstock – a general term given to raw materials used for processing or manufacturing another product. On the downside, this extent of recycling granularity is more laborious and expensive than depolymerization recycling (which, in turn, is more labor-intensive and costly than traditional mechanical recycling). The upside is feedstock recycling allows polyolefin polymers (PP and PE) to be recycled in a way that makes them viable for pharma-grade applications in a way mechanical recycling methods could not. 

It is this combination of cost and effectiveness that is dictating the current PCR landscape, not just in pharma but in all packaging-relevant sectors. For example, though producing a fully chemically recycled PET package may be prohibitively pricey, a controlled blending of virgin plastics and chemically recycled PET could produce a package that is, say, 30 percent PCR – a figure that aligns with the PPWR’s near-term goals for recycled content in non-pharma applications. 

A similar process, called mass balance, can be conducted to incorporate percentages of PE and PP into plastic packaging that originate from recycled feedstock. With the mass balance approach, the recycled feedstock is intermittently dispersed in the entire output, but the resin can be purchased via 100 percent recycled content certificates. Again, this mixing of virgin and feedstock recycling is largely a function of cost; the higher the PCR content, the costlier the production process (for now).

Technologies tend to become more efficient and less expensive as they evolve, and recycling processes aren’t likely to break this rule of thumb. The most important factor here is that these technologies work – so well, in fact, that it’s impossible to tell the difference between chemically recycled resins and their virgin counterparts. 

For proof, we need only turn to regulation. It’s become so hard to distinguish chemically recycled from virgin plastics that companies incorporating the former must certify their resins as such. This is undertaken via the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification, also called ISCC Plus, which has essentially become a monitored marketplace for recycled resins and, simultaneously, a means of dissuading dishonest players from labeling virgin plastics as recycled. 

Whether or not it is eventually regulated and mandated, chemically upcycled content in primary pharma packaging is a hurdle that will be gradually eroded and ultimately erased. As sustainability transitions from megatrend to mainstay, an increasing set of enterprising pharma companies will stick their necks out and their hands up. And they will be counted among the pioneers that made recycled content in primary pharma packaging the forward-thinking rule rather than the extraordinary exception. 

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About the Author
Michiel van den Berg

Global Head of Product Management for TekniPlex Healthcare, which utilizes advanced materials science expertise and technologies to develop and deliver critical solutions for medical and diagnostic devices, drug delivery systems and healthcare packaging applications.

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