There are several stages in the pharmaceutical manufacturing chain where medicines are packed, unpacked, and repacked. Sometimes one packing layer is removed, sometimes another is added. From the point of view of a circular economy, packaging of medicines is not done in the best possible way. But could it be? Pharmaceutical packaging materials, package sizes, and packaging practices require critical evaluation.
In Finland, packaging including pharmaceutical packaging will become subject to more stringent recycling targets in waste legislation, which is currently being updated. For the European Union and Finland to achieve their circular economy goals, they need to promote closed and clean material cycles and reduce the amount of waste.
Pharmaceutical packaging differs from, for example, detergent packaging in that the packaging of medicinal products is regulated by special requirements for medicinal products. Packaging must protect the composition of the medicinal product and prevent its possible manipulation. The customers need to be able to trust that the therapeutic functions of medicines have not been compromised. In legislation, the safety of medicines precedes everything else.
Renewing transport practices and pack sizes provide possibilities for reducing the use of packaging materials
However, not all materials used for pharmaceutical packaging are in direct contact with the medicine itself. In the pharmaceutical value chain, different actors transport medicines to each other. From importers and manufacturers, medicines pass through wholesalers and possible dose distributors to pharmacies, treatment units, and consumers.
In the process, medicines are repeatedly unpacked and packed in new, smaller or larger batches. Sometimes one layer is removed, sometimes one is added. Even for a short transport distance, the medicine transport pallets are protected with a multi-layer plastic film. A plastic film that is removed as soon as the shipment arrives. A plastic film that ends up as waste. Could this be done differently?
Packages in direct contact with medicines can be small or large. The size of the package affects the amount of waste generated. For example, the medicines needed by home care customers in the morning, day and evening can be divided into ready-made single dose bags in a pharmacy or dose distribution company. This helps both the work of the nursing staff administering the medications and the customers taking the medications. It also makes it easier to avoid incorrect dosing and protect the customers.
Within a two week period, a dose distribution company can pack a quarter of a million tablets of, for example, one painkiller. If these tablets are packed in plastic jars of 100 tablets, it is easy to imagine that the amount of plastic created by the painkillers alone is enormous. The number of plastic jars would be much smaller if larger package sizes were available for batch distribution. They exist for some medicines in Finland, but not for all. Could these practices be changed to reduce the use of packaging materials?
Some concrete steps to reduce packaging waste have already been taken
The actors and practices of the pharmaceutical chain have been changing and will continue to do so in the future. Will it be possible to transform the pharmaceutical packaging materials, package sizes and packaging practices without compromising the safety of medicines? We explore these issues in the SUDDEN research project to improve the efficiency of the pharmaceutical packaging chain.
Recently in Finland, the actors working with pharmaceuticals have started a discussion to address the challenges identified in the value chain, reduce packaging waste, and promote recycling. Some actors have already taken the first concrete steps, such as organizing the recycling of plastics.
Also, the possibility of ordering large packages suitable for dose distribution from outside the Finnish borders has been brought up in the discussions. This is allowed in Sweden, but it is not possible in Finland at the moment. Maybe in the future?
The possibility to introduce electronic package leaflets has been considered too, as it would help to reduce the number of cartons needed. Cooperation between the different actors ensures that all views are taken into account when agreeing on new national practices in Finland.
Check Helena Dahlbo’s presentation on the circular economy of pharmaceutical packaging in SUDDEN project seminar on 11 May 2021: