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How to enhance the sustainability of plastic packaging

Katie Kellogg, global product line manager, Milliken & Company discusses strategy to enhance the sustainability of plastic packaging.

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Medical plastics serve a critical use that is highly regulated—and rightly so. 

The landscape of medical packaging, specifically plastics, often contradicts our vision of a circular economy. What is acceptable for plastic packaging in other industries doesn’t translate for medical plastics: Packaging integrity must be ensured and must perform to exacting specifications. The bar is set high to ensure patient safety, and few tradeoffs are available to the medical plastics industry. 

Single-use plastics offer the most consistent way to adhere to the essential use needs of the medical industry, yet the concept of single-use plastics comes with its own drawbacks. As plastic manufacturers and brand owners prioritise sustainability for their downstream customers, recyclable plastics are becoming the standard in many industries. Circularity would be the ultimate goal for medical plastics, too, but incorporating recycled resin or recycled content leads to critical product issues. 

How to solve sustainability in medical plastics Remember the formative lesson we learned in school: Reduce, reuse, recycle. The “three Rs” offer different solutions that work collaboratively to decrease waste across the planet. The emphasis on recycling and reusing is foremost in today’s conversations because it helps further the goals of a circular economy for plastics. But we can’t overlook the value that reduction brings to the table. 

A more managed plastic economy for the medical field is possible if we are willing to consider the opportunities presented by reduction strategies. 

Decreasing the amount of plastic used in pharma bottles, for example, is one illustration of material reductions. These bottles are not recyclable, given quality and cross-contamination concerns. But pharma bottles are critical to protecting and delivering patient medication, so they will always be needed. Consider the impact if the bottle was redesigned with reduction in mind. By intentionally sourcing novel plastic additives, like Milliken’s UltraGuard Solutions, bottle manufacturers can slow the transmission of oxygen and moisture in these high-density polyethylene (HDPE) bottles to improve barrier performance by up to 50% without the traditional layering necessary for prior iterations of pharma bottles. Using this technology reduces the overall weight of thick-walled HDPE bottles by up to 20%. Light and moisture performance remain intact, with less overall plastic needed. 

Lowering greenhouse gas emissions  Material reductions can be felt beyond its intended use case. The transition from glass syringes to plastic syringes meets patient-centric care needs with added supply chain benefits. Using plastic packaging over glass helps elevate the storage, transportation, and dispersal of vials and syringes because plastics are less breakable and weigh less than glass counterparts. Finding weight savings in the transportation and storage of syringes helps contribute to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the value chain. 

There are significant benefits in manufacturing resource reductions. Focusing on sustainable manufacturing strategies that encourage responsible resource utilisation can have impacts across the value chain. Considering new sources of power—Milliken harnessed cogeneration at manufacturing sites to eliminate the use of coal-powered energy at those facilities—translate to both GHG emission savings and waste reductions. These types of cuts create a sustainable currency that is passed along to brand owners and lessens the environmental implications that contribute to climate change. Exploring reduction strategies across the medical plastics value chain can increase industry sustainability by supporting vital patient outcomes with functional, performative—and most importantly, purposeful— plastic products.

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Publication date: 19/03/2024

Medical Plastics News

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2022-01-31