When I started working in healthcare packaging in September 2008 (first at a Sterile Packaging Manufacturer from the United States and since 2018 at DuPont™), I could not have imagined that such exciting things would be happening as they are today.
My manager at the time taught me that the healthcare packaging market is slow and conservative, and in many cases it is. Not because people necessarily like or are trying to be slow and conservative, but because this market is a matter of life and death; a well-functioning and documented device that has proven its services will not be replaced or adjusted quickly – because these changes cost time and money. And that applies to the same extent, and perhaps even more so for the packaging: if you have solid, sterile and validated packaging, you will not change it quickly. In fact, you may end up using your existing packaging setup for more of your products. Simply because it works (and the product remains sterile up to the point-of-use).
Yet that is now changing and the driving force, you guessed it, is sustainability and the desire to be able to reduce, reuse, and recycle more easily. We live in a world where we increasingly realize that being economical with everything we have is elementary for a healthy, livable, and safer future for our children. And that awareness has also penetrated the healthcare and pharmaceutical markets. One of the initiatives is the drafting of the Nordic Criteria (released in March 2022, the Common Nordic Criteria for more Sustainable Packaging in Healthcare was developed by stakeholders with the aim of reducing material waste, increasing recycling, and increasing the usage of recycled or renewable materials). And I am not surprised that this initiative comes from Scandinavia (as far as I am concerned, a region in Europe that is at the forefront in many things).
And so, it can happen that packaging, which has proven its worth for more than 40 years, is suddenly viewed with a different eye, simply because it is not easy to reuse. In many cases, these types of packages consist of two different materials, which are 'heat sealed' to each other (to form a pouch or a blister), that protects the product and at the point of use allows the end-user to aseptically open and present the product. And precisely because such packaging consists of materials that come from a different 'family,' (types of plastic) it is complicated to recycle them (ideally, you could separate both materials after opening - if not contaminated - and throw them in separate waste bins, but understand this is burdensome to healthcare professionals). So, wouldn't it be handy if both materials came from the same family? And this is exactly the development we are going through at the moment.
Some leading Medical Device Manufacturers have decided to overhaul their packaging, making it easier and faster to separate and recycle. The current packaging configurations (for example PET/PE film combined with coated paper) will be replaced by packages which are constructed from a single plastic family. This makes it much easier for the users of the product (whether hospital staff or patients in their own environment) to recycle these materials. It seems like a drop in the ocean, but with the millions of square meters of packaging material used in healthcare, this is a very important step, it will help hospitals meet waste reduction goals and, above all, a strong signal to everyone who cares about our planet.
As an industry, we will continue to work together to evolve and meet the needs of more sustainable packaging solutions. I invite you to attend DuPont’s virtual Medical Packaging Conference this October 4 & 5, 2023, where panels of experts will delve more deeply into regulations and trends in sustainable packaging. We look forward to continuing to help solve the challenges of more sustainable packaging with our partners and anyone else showing interest and passion by reading this blog.