With a continued focus on carbon emissions and creating a more sustainable planet, businesses all around the world are seeking new ways to improve their environmental impact.

For the pharmaceutical industry, this has led to initiatives around waste reduction and decreasing the use of power, air or water used on a production line.

But it’s in packaging that pharma must break new ground. When it comes to medication, pharmaceutical packaging is an unavoidable necessity; a vital component of the production process designed to safely transport a drug from producer to patient.

“When a pharmaceutical producer needs to pack a drug or medicine and in the production line is a molecule in pill or powder form, it is usually packed into a blister,” explains Xavier Martelli, owner at Pharmaflex, a partner to leading pharmaceutical equipment supplier Hapa. “This is usually made up of two elements, a plastic film and an aluminium foil. The film will be formed in order to create a cavity where the pill sits and the cavity is sealed on top by foil.

“To achieve that, the pharma company must purchase aluminium reels, with the majority of the foil pre-printed by a printing firm with relevant information such as the drug and manufacturer name and possibly regulatory details.

“It means that pharma companies are purchasing thousands of smaller rolls and every production process involves finding the corresponding roll in their stock, putting it on the machine and producing it. When the lot is finished, they take back what remains of the roll to stock. They have been doing that for the past 60 years or so.”

The result is an increase in waste, plus a considerable number of truck deliveries of aluminium reels, a process which many agree is not the most sustainable or economical. In fact, companies are sometimes receiving deliveries of aluminium foil multiple times a month, meaning there are more trucks on the road every day.

“When a supplier is printing aluminium foil, they are also wasting large amounts of foil,” says Martelli. “This is because during printing you need to feed a big printing machine with a lot of foil before being able to do the proper register of the printing and to achieve the right quality. So every time a company receives 100 reels, they may have on average 12 which are going in the bin.”

Environmental impact of pharmaceutical packaging

Although regulatory bodies are asking the industry to reduce their packaging usage, they aren’t making suggestions around how this can be done. Sustainability initiatives are entirely up to the producer.

It seems unlikely that the industry will move away from aluminium foil. Thanks to its superior barrier properties, aluminium foils remains the material of choice for pharma. Impenetrable to moisture, oxygen and other gases, as well as micro-organisms and light, aluminium foil helps to keep medication in perfect condition for longer.

But there is a way to reap the rewards of aluminium foil, whilst reducing the environmental impact of packaging production.

“All Hapa machines, when installed on a production line, provide environmental benefits.”

“With Hapa’s in-house pharmaceutical foil printing solution, a customer is equipped with a production line using an on-site machine which is able to print on aluminium foil. It means the pharma company no longer needs aluminium foil deliveries each week and those 12 reels that are going to scrap, no longer exist. That waste is basically eliminated, enabling a leaner production,” says Martelli.

“A pharmaceutical company can also significantly reduce the amount of aluminium foil which they have in their stock, helping to minimise a lot of supply chain difficulties and manage SKU complexity. When you stock only blank foil, you keep a maximum of five reels, with the only difference being their width, leading to just three or four deliveries a year, instead of more than 50.

“Additionally, larger volumes of unprinted foil is less costly to purchase than smaller, customised foil reels.”

Green side effects

Hapa’s in-house printing equipment removes packaging complexity from production and helps to deliver significantly improved levels of operational effectiveness. In fact, the company’s entire suite of products can help to increase productivity and improve sustainability, with digital, flexographic, and hybrid systems providing pharma firms with plenty of choice for a solution that works for them.

According to Martelli: “All Hapa machines, when installed on a production line, provide environmental benefits. The green side effect is always there, but it’s not measured and customers are often not aware that they exist.

“It is not possible to measure the overall CO2 saving, but companies can get a reasonable overview by looking at how many deliveries they have each year. Every time you have a delivery, there is a vehicle driving a large distance to deliver the products, so you can calculate how much CO2 the truck emits per km.

“When you are reducing your 100 or so deliveries a year to around five with in-house printing, you can measure just one of the ways you are making a significant CO2 saving by switching to Hapa.”