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Building Sustainability into Medical Packaging


Nicholas Berendt of Sealed Air Medical Applications assesses new approaches to packaging, which include a new way to package hip stem implants.

An inner polyurethane pouch holds the hip stem

The manufacturing and supply of sterile barrier packaging for the medical and pharmaceutical industries is an activity that leaves little room for error. This leads to a highly conservative approach with little innovation over time. Meanwhile, the pressures from the outside world grow. The public at large is becoming more demanding about the need to make optimal use of resources and to reduce waste.

Global standards and regulations on environmental performance continue to evolve with ISO Technical Committee (TC) 122/SC 4 now taking the lead. This Packaging and the Environment TC has working groups established on topics such as packaging optimisation, reuse, recycling and energy, chemical and organic recovery and draft standards are at the Committee stage.

The work has its origins in the European ‚€úPackaging and Packaging Waste Directive (PPWD) 94/62/EC, which, in most European countries has been applied to all medical packaging waste including packaging that make up the sterile barrier system (SBS). Only three European member states showed support for sterile barrier materials being classified as non-packaging in Annex 1 of the PPWD. Although there has been some discussion with the European Commission on the suitability of including SBS materials, whose role is more than simply packaging, in the Directive, a change does not seem likely in the foreseeable future.

The definition of sustainable
The adjective "sustainable" is defined as follows, "able to be maintained at a certain rate or level, conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources," (Oxford English Dictionary).

Twenty years ago the buzzword in packaging was "biodegradable". The future was full of packaging that quickly and gently turned into something organic in our landfill sites to nourish the earth beneath our feet. Realistically, that was not going to happen. Most materials, whether paper or polymer based require differing combinations of oxygen, ultra violet light, moisture and heat to break down and no one wants to leave these items in the open air for that to happen.

Thus, sustainability became a wiser choice in terms of making the best use of the world's resources in the long term. It also expanded far beyond the notion of making good use of resources. Today's sustainable products must meet criteria that are environmental, social and performance related, as shown in Table I.

Table I: the demands placed on tomorrow's sustainable packaging


Meets the marketdemands for value

Reduces the quantity of damaged or wasted products during transport, storage or use

Helps customers operate more efficiently and enhances their products

Optimises the efficiency of the supply chain.


Provides measurable benefits to individuals and communities

Helps emerging markets grow economically

Is safe and meets all regulatory requirements


Makes efficient use of raw materials and minimises waste

Reduces the energy needed to manufacture and ship products and the fuel customer‚€ôs need to ship and store their products

Reduces greenhouse gas emissions associated with the overall package and contents of the package

The definition of what is sustainable has been adapted to fit different industries. For the paper industry, it can be about replacing felled trees by planting as many or more for the future. Within the packaging industry as a whole, organisations such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (www.sustainablepackaging.org) in the US and the European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment, Europen, (www.europen.be) have created definitions for "Packaging's Contribution to Sustainable Development." Europen has adopted the EU's Sustainable Development Strategy and this means that packaging should
  • be designed holistically with the product to optimise overall environmental performance
  • be made from responsibly sourced materials
  • be designed to be effective and safe throughout its life cycle
  • meet market criteria for performance and cost
  • meet consumer choice and expectations be recovered efficiently after use.

Sustainability is a journey
There is an opportunity for every company to take a long hard look at its operations and to assess where it is on the path to sustainability. Figure 1 illustrates the typical evolution a company will make.
Some companies will find themselves starting out and being driven by legal requirements such as the PPWD, others may be further ahead with ISO environmental accreditation or are being proactive in their planning and communication. In the case of Sealed Air, its operational goals include such things as increasing saleable product ratio to 98% of raw materials used through improved yields and improved scrap reprocessing, and reducing greenhouse gas intensity by 12% in 2010; both targets were met.

Regardless of where companies are today on this path, there is no doubt that by being higher to the right along the path companies are able to create increasing value for their customers and themselves and so create greater opportunities.

Figure 1: The sustainability journey

Taking big steps
Many examples of sustainable packaging focus on small steps such as gauge reduction. However, for long-term success, these steps are insufficient. The big steps that are needed focus on three important elements:
  • Leveraging innovation in the packaging and packing processes
  • Demonstrating performance in the product application
  • Delivering value across the supply chain.
To do this, sustainability objectives must be built into the business goals and cause us to rethink manufacturing and design and value chain delivery.

Rethinking design and value chain
In the orthopaedics market, it had become the practice to place hip stem implants in a double rigid polyethylene terephthalate (PETG) blister. The implant is held in place by foam pieces and the inner and outer blister sealed with a Tyvek (DuPont Medical Packaging) lid.

Stryker challenged Sealed Air Nelipak to devise a new way of packing these implants, and sustainable solutions were at the heart of the project. The negatives of the existing pack were:
  • The large pack size - it was deep
  • The large amounts of retaining foam pieces - bulky when disposed of
  • The large number of components meant that the pack was complex to put together and, more importantly, for the operating room staff to open, with the risk of contamination or nonsterile presentation.

The brief was to create a new pack that would address all these issues and be a big step forward in sustainability, through rethinking the design.

Sealed Air's designers devised a completely new way to pack the hip stems. The foam was replaced by an inner polyurethane pouch to hold the implant (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Traditional and new packaging. In the new design, the foam is replaced by an inner ouch that holds the implant, the depth of the tray is reduced by more than 50%

The use of this pouch means that the depth of the tray is reduced by more than 50%. The pouch now becomes a tool for the surgeon and nurses who are able to safely hold the stem inside the pouch during preparation for transfer to the patient (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The pouch allows the surgeon and nurses to safely hold the stem

The results of using the new packaging system were:
  • A 50% reduction in raw material usage
  • A 50% reduction in the number of shipping movements required to take the product to market
  • A more efficient process flow in manufacturing
  • Easier handling for the medical staff during the hip replacement procedure
  • No compromise of the safety and regulatory requirements.

Rethinking manufacturing
Over the years, shrink films have gradually been pared down to the thinnest possible gauges, often at the expense of machine speeds, reject rates and presentation. As an active supplier in the shrink film market, Sealed Air wanted to innovate in a sustainable way.

The step change came through the use of new manufacturing technology that has allowed the creation of a new patented film: CT-301. This film is 7 micron thick compared with 13-15 micron usually offered, yet it offers equivalent strength and performance to those thicker films. The results are:
  • An increase in linear metres on a roll of up to 50%, leading to less transport for the same amount of material, therefore less emissions; and less roll changes at the customer‚€ôs point of manufacture
  • Lower tunnel temperatures, leading to reduced power consumption
  • Reduced storage space.

Reap sustainability rewards
Whatever your current position on the path to sustainability, rethinking design and value chain, and manufacturing parameters allows companies to make big leaps forwards. These lead to bigger results and bigger opportunities as your reputation for innovation and packaging expertise grows. 

Nicholas Berendt is Director of Global Market Development at Sealed Air

Fleets Lane, Poole, Dorset BH15 3BT, UK,

tel. +44 (0)1202 781 241

e-mail: nicholas.berendt@sealedair.com



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