Sustainable packaging for medtech and pharma

By Peter Murphy

Sustainable packaging in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry is gaining traction. Many other industries are already deeply engaged in more sustainable practices and believe the investment is worthwhile.

We see sustainability as an opportunity to innovate and a chance to realign our clients’ sustainability goals. That is why our dedicated Healthcare Design team have been challenging and supporting our medical clients to consider sustainability in their secondary packaging design strategies.

In our experience, some companies need guidance in how to be truly sustainable. They may be unsure of particular aspects to address or the right questions to ask their packaging partners and vendors. Also, there are important regulatory considerations requiring careful consideration, with each industry having its own unique sustainability challenges.

Government and EU directives such as The European Green Deal, The Paris Agreement and The EU Circular Economy Action Plan means we are more aware and informed than ever before as consumers. There has been a real societal awakening to the direct impact of our decisions on the environment. This has led to a sustained shift towards answering sustainability questions in the medtech and pharma industries.

Our direct experience in early user research and Human Factors Engineering has taught us that patients, healthcare professions and medical institutions are actively calling out for change. In addition, buyers are asking for sustainability approaches and evidence as part of purchasing decisions. National healthcare systems, like the HSE or NHS want simplified and reduced packaging because it directly impacts carbon footprint reduction and disposal costs. In addition to this, new national and corporate ‘green targets’ mean ‘green’ projects and ‘green’ vendors are being actively pursued to meet these challenges.

To support our clients in addressing sustainability challenges, we have developed a 9 point sustainability criteria to ensure that sustainability thinking is integrated into our packaging design right from the start.

Sustainable Packaging infographic

Sustainability criteria

  1. Start by storyboarding the packaging lifespan – Tease out the usability and sustainability pain points, from assembly and packing to the patient’s home. This helps identify areas of concern that require attention.
  2. Reduce superfluous packaging – This helps ensure an immediate reduction in packaging weight, size, and cost. This reduced carbon footprint is a win when it comes to palletisation. Most importantly, it will result in less waste going to landfill. As well as these obvious benefits, a reduction in superfluous packaging ensures a reduction in packaging complexity. By removing usability barriers we are having a direct, positive impact on patient adherence.
  3. Where possible, combine elements of the packaging. We challenge our clients and ask them, “Could you incorporate UI instructions directly into the design instead of supplying a separate booklet?” or “Could you print instructions on the underside of the lid?’’ There are always smart ways to get around complex sustainability problems, and we feel it is important to invest time and expertise into solving them.
  4. Consider leveraging digital. For example, replace word-heavy IFU documents by using QR codes for patients to scan and read instructions online, or perhaps augmented reality (AR) to coach patients on how to use the product, live on their smartphone.
  5. Design for disposal. It is common for the disposal of packaging to be an afterthought, but it is important to consider it from its conception. If possible, make the packaging dismantleable for disposal, choose mono-materials or design it to be recycling stream compatible, per region.
  6. Reduce dependency on virgin plastics and, where possible, use recycled plastics or consider alternative materials. We’re aware that this is a challenge where sterilisation requirements could be a barrier. However, opening up conversations about this and considering the use of materials beyond default virgin plastics is an important step in the drive towards more sustainable packaging.
  7. Prioritise low-impact materials in instances where waste requires incineration.
  8. Be smart and make the right choices. Always seek to innovate, where appropriate. For example, try using water-based inks or adhesives, sustainably sourced card, pigment-free plastics or choose cellulose instead of PVC. There’s never just one way to solve a problem. Where possible, always drive for the most sustainable option.
  9. Finally, It’s important to feed into that culture of continuous improvement by promoting sustainability in the packaging’s design. This can be done in a multitude of ways: through text, material choice, mechanical build, or highlighting resin identification codes. It’s all about promoting better disposal practices.

These are 9 seemingly simple steps but they are dependent upon expertise and a high level of commitment. Significant change can only be achieved through a collective effort from clients, design agencies and packaging vendors. Most importantly, real progress will require a determination by all parties to put good intentions into practice. As an industry, we’re making ground, but there is still more work to be done.

About the authors

Peter Murphy PA medical device design expert

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