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Packaging and recycling: environmental or economic sustainability?

Packaging and recycling: environmental or economic sustainability?

The adoption of environmental sustainability measures is severely challenging the entire drug supply chain, already stressed by pandemics, shortages and rising energy bills. While it is reasonable to envisage moving towards climate neutrality targets in gradual steps and subsequent adjustments being designed specifically for each production sector, the target remains ambitious.

What emerges from the green transition experiences examined so far is that a pragmatic approach is, as is often the case, helpful in identifying solutions capable of starting virtuous cycles. To make sure, in essence, that the necessary adjustments to achieve sustainability goals do not represent a cost tout court, but an investment.

One problem (but a big one) and many small solutions

From a general point of view, the first step is the one, already taken by the entire industry, of identifying efficiency points along the entire value chain. Up to this point, the approach is clearly advantageous, because optimising processes guarantees potentially non-negligible benefits in terms of consumption and, given the skyrocketing prices of raw materials and energy, considerable savings.

A second intervention is the efficiency enhancement, which must be well-calibrated in order to assume the necessary characteristics of cost effectiveness.
Several analysts also espouse the idea of drawing inspiration from the model traced by the cosmetics industry, which has some significant affinities with the pharmaceutical industry.

Cosmetics manufacturers have focused on sustainable packaging to reduce the environmental impact of their business without affecting safety standards. There are numerous solutions already applied for beauty products.


One of the most interesting is the use of airless paper or glass jars, which prevent oxidation and microbial contamination of the contents and guarantee precision in dosage. Airless promises a real explosion in the sector: Research&Markets, a market research big firm, has estimated that the airless market, currently valued at around €3.2 billion, should exceed €7 billion by 2027, with an average annual growth rate of 5.7%.

Other virtuous examples are the use of materials composed of RPet from up to 80% recycled bottles, vertical thermoforming-filling machines (which work by guaranteeing an industrial waste in production close to zero), stand-up and squeezable vials, thermoformed paper containers (which can be differentiated directly in the paper container), and biobased packaging (made from fully recyclable biopolymers derived from renewable resources and natural materials not linked to the food chain).

Innovation also concerns production processes: the challenge is to have production sites powered exclusively by energy from renewable sources and based on the use of 4.0 machinery with high efficiency and reduced environmental impact.

The European Packaging Waste Regulation

As part of the Green Deal, last November the European Commission presented a proposal for a regulation on the recycling and reuse of packaging, which is one of the products that uses the most raw materials (40% of the plastic used in the EU, to name but one example) and generates the largest volumes of waste.

The proposal is to reduce packaging waste by 15 per cent per capita per country by 2040 and, to put it mildly, has not been warmly welcomed by business representatives.
The fact is that recent estimates raise serious concerns about the achievement of climate neutrality targets by 2050 and suggest that, without serious measures to be implemented as soon as possible, by 2030 there would be (even) an increase (of around 19%) in the volume of packaging waste in the EU (+46% if we are talking about plastics).

The objectives of the legislation are to prevent the production of packaging waste (also by imposing more restrictions and promoting the use of reusable and refillable elements), to promote high quality recycling (so-called ‘closed-loop recycling’, so that all packaging on the market can be recycled in an economically sustainable way by 2030) and to reduce the need for primary natural resources (by increasing the use of recycled plastics through binding targets).
To make these goals achievable, packaging formats will be standardised, the possibility to reuse packaging will be clearly marked on the label and certain types of single-use packaging will be banned.
Although the proposal has been described as a business opportunity for the industry, especially insofar as it could reduce dependence on primary resources and shorten the supply chain, the industry has reacted with much scepticism, not least in view of the risks that such legislation would generate in terms of the survival of the companies themselves.

Benefits and challenges

The advantages envisaged by the draft regulation are concrete. Increasing the efficiency of recycling and reuse and stimulating models based on the circular economy is a way to decouple economic growth from the use of virgin raw materials with positive repercussions on biodiversity and in general on our and our planet’s health.

Moreover, the use of new raw materials often implies a purchase linked to imports that make companies dependent on other countries and the fossil fuels needed to produce and transport them. And today more than ever, the advantages of greater energy and economic independence are obvious, not only from an environmental point of view.
Of course, the negative impact of such a regulation, which sets very challenging logistical and time constraints, for the drug supply chain as well as for the other sectors involved, remains to be assessed.

While the document continues its approval process, the discussion between industry associations and the European Commission is open.
The new legislation would address many unresolved issues concerning the recycling and reuse of packaging materials: will the exemptions envisaged for the pharmaceutical sector be sufficient?