Improving Sustainability in Healthcare Packaging

April 26, 2022 • Posted in Market Insights

Implementing sustainable solutions is a huge challenge for healthcare facilities globally. This is in large part due to the industry’s dependence on single-use, disposable products. Although disposable products help to reduce the risk of infection, lower the chance for cross contamination and decrease mortality rates, they also create a significant amount of waste. Updated national and international guidelines are motivating healthcare organizations to address the issue by improving their environmental impact, increasing the recyclability of products, and reducing waste generated by healthcare packaging and medical devices. Medical device and healthcare packaging manufacturers have several viable options to meet sustainability demands, including reducing packaging complexity, downgauging, and using sustainable materials where possible.

Reduce Packaging Complexity

Hospitals in the U.S. generate approximately 14,000 tons of waste per day, according to the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council. Downgauging, or reducing the amount of packaging used, is one way to address excess medical waste and lower the carbon footprint of a product while continuing to meet necessary regulations.

“The pharma packaging and medical device market is affected by strict change management regulations, supply and demand imbalances, and supply chain security issues. This creates a tough environment for manufacturers to navigate,” said Josh Blackmore, Global Healthcare Manager at M. Holland. Stringent regulatory environments can make OEMs reluctant to change processes and materials for approved medical devices, but Josh encourages manufacturers to take a second look. “Eighty-five percent of hospital waste is non-hazardous. Reducing the amount of waste particularly in medical and pharma packaging is a great place to start when working toward more sustainable solutions,” he said.

Efficient packaging design and optimized material usage can make a substantial impact on medical waste and sustainability initiatives. For example, medical packaging designers and manufacturers who use fewer or newer materials like Zylar® MBS, which is 15% lighter than clear materials currently in use, can effectively protect the device and generate less waste. The resulting medical packaging is lighter, therefore requiring less energy to manufacture, and reduces transportation costs and overall environmental impact.

Reassess Packaging Material

Aside from reducing packaging complexity in healthcare, the use of sustainable materials should also be considered where possible. Updated or redesigned healthcare and pharmaceutical packaging must adhere to current safety standards, which might be a source of hesitation for manufacturers. Fortunately, the quality of sustainable options like bioplastics, recycled materials and specialty additives has advanced to meet those needs.

The evolution of advanced or chemical recycling technology, an essential complement to mechanical recycling, is making it possible for hard-to-recycle plastic waste to be converted to recycled polymers that have the same mechanical properties as virgin polymers. Innovative products, such as Covestro’s Makrolon® RE polycarbonate, demonstrate that it is possible to support the circular economy and create lower carbon footprint polymers for healthcare, without compromising device performance, regulatory compliance or patient safety.  

Examples of bioplastics used in healthcare today are polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). PLA mimics traditional plastics like ABS, polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene. PLA is made from sugars found in corn, starch, cassava or sugarcane and is 3D-printable. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, PLA 3D printing filament has been used to create ventilator components and manufacture personal protective equipment for the healthcare industry. Alternatively, PHAs are polyesters biosynthesized by a bacterium fed by inexpensive oils derived from the seeds of plants such as canola and soy. It is a sustainable polymer option for single-use consumables like an otoscope disposable speculum as well as food-grade packaging including films.

When considering the use of more sustainable materials, Debbie Prenatt, Market Manager, Sustainability at M. Holland, recommends considering the entire life cycle when designing a plastic component, as well as simplifying the number of materials used to make it. “Using multiple materials in medical devices and packaging complicates the ability to create a different product end-of-life story, as well its ability to be recycled,” said Debbie. “Reducing the number and variety of materials helps promote a more sustainable and circular product journey overall.”

Twenty percent of plastic waste in hospitals is composed of mixed materials that could endanger the recycling stream. Simplifying healthcare packaging and devices makes it easier to properly sort and recycle that waste. This is one of the ways medical manufacturers can improve a product’s sustainability beyond its creation.

Re-Evaluate Medical Devices

Reducing packaging complexity and analyzing material selection are important contributors to creating a more sustainable healthcare industry. But designing truly sustainable medical devices that meet device demands through manufacturing, use and eventual disposal requires close coordination between manufacturers and medical organizations.

“OEMs should work closely with material engineers to help create more sustainable medical devices,” said Josh. “Could a single-use product be reusable to avoid unnecessary waste? Can the overall dimensions of the product be reduced to require less material and packaging? These are just the first considerations on the path to device sustainability.”

In addition, Josh considers whether there are suitable material substitutes that are sustainably produced or require less energy to manufacture. He recommends partnering with material suppliers to discuss these considerations and create a closed-loop system for medical waste to enable device recycling whenever possible. Like packaging, Josh suggests creating complete devices or device elements with one material to make recycling easier and prioritizing device elements that can be recycled or returned and remanufactured wherever possible.  “It’s good to get your resin supplier involved early in the product development cycle,” he advises.

Reconsider Recycling

Medical devices are not the only products that can be made more sustainable through reuse. The linear take-make-dispose approach is common in the healthcare industry, but non-hazardous waste can oftentimes be recycled or reclaimed to maximize material value and minimize waste disposal. Examples of non-hazardous medical waste include plastic packaging, clean glass and plastic, paper and cardboard, food scraps, and office products.

One thing to keep in mind, according to Josh, is the educational element that comes into play when prioritizing recycling. “It is important that recyclable products are clearly labeled to avoid being wasted by busy healthcare professionals,” he said. “Where possible, educate medical professionals on the proper way to handle recyclable materials with clearly printed packaging instructions and through vendor partnerships.”

Sustainability Options in Healthcare

Offering sustainable alternatives for the healthcare industry can result in cost savings, improved environmental impact, better brand reputation with customers and investors, and an added edge against non-sustainable competitors. But packaging and medical devices that fall short of serving their intended purpose are never sustainable, regardless of material reduction, recyclability or use of recycled materials. Making sustainable changes must balance product sterility and efficacy with healthcare regulations and patient needs. It is important for manufacturers of medical devices and packaging to partner with vendors and healthcare facilities to design a sustainable alternative that fulfills its intended purpose.

M. Holland’s Healthcare, Sustainability and Packaging groups are specifically focused on meeting the needs of medical device and pharmaceutical packaging manufacturers. Our goal is the same as yours — supporting the creation of safe, effective and sustainable healthcare packaging and medical devices. Use the links here to review M. Holland’s wide range of materials in our healthcare packaging line card or medical resin selection booklet. For devices, review our thermoplastic selection for medical devices white paper to get started.

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