Engineering Sustainable & Safe Healthcare Packaging

According to a recent Plastic Ingenuity survey, 57% of healthcare industry respondents said their organizations are focused on maximizing post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in their packaging to enhance circularity. Image courtesy of Plastic Ingenuity.

Innovative technologies are advancing recycling.

By Glenn Petrie, Commercial Director – Healthcare at Plastic Ingenuity

Healthcare packaging is integral to protecting the devices and products entrusted to support wellness and save lives. This segment includes packages designed for medical devices, pharmaceutical products, lab consumables and diagnostic tools. Patient health and safety are utmost concerns. At the same time, there is a pressing need to improve sustainability of the healthcare and life sciences industry.

With advance planning and a strategic approach to design, packaging can be optimized for circularity and sustainability. This is a process that cannot be rushed; however, the end product can have significant results.

From concept to commercialization

Beckman Coulter Diagnostics supports healthcare professionals in offering improved patient care by delivering accurate diagnostic information. In 2017, they were preparing for the launch of a highly automated diagnostic machine with newly developed consumables, including an extremely sensitive polypropylene (PP) pipette tip. The custom thermoformed package they requested would not only hold and protect the delicate pipette tips, but also minimize material usage and capitalize on increased recycling opportunities. This took several years of extensive design engineering to achieve.

Rigorous testing revealed that the pipette tips were acutely susceptible to damage, and any damage caused failures with the automated equipment. Even a slightly bent tip could shut down the diagnostic machines for extended durations.

To protect the highly sensitive pipette tips from handling damage, a unique lid and base tray were designed to be as robust as possible while remaining a viable thermoformed part. Following a design for manufacturing (DfM) process, the engineers focused on adding structural features to both the base and lid to increase the overall package strength.

Notably, Beckman Coulter collaborated with the thermoformer to customize a cut-out feature in the package’s base tray that allows laboratory techs and operators to easily reach inside the package when loading the individual pipette trays into the instrument.

This pipette kit packaging uses polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the most widely used and recycled packaging material. Specifically, regrind PET material was thermoformed into custom packaging that improved product protection and tray handling – suitable for all shipping conditions. Moreover, the design and process improvements resulted in a 58% decrease of plastic used and a reduction of 371 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent per million parts.

Innovative technologies advance recycling

According to a recent survey, 57% of healthcare industry respondents said their organizations are focused on maximizing post-consumer recycled (PCR) content in their packaging to enhance circularity.1 Although PCR is restricted from sterile barrier system (SBS) packaging, it is possible to use PCR for secondary and tertiary packaging, which have fewer constraints. Furthermore, advanced recycling techniques and mass balance systems are emerging technologies that will help unlock opportunities to use recycled materials in the healthcare industry.

Advanced recycling is a suite of novel techniques focused on hard-to-recycle materials. Through purification, depolymerization or conversion, polymers are reduced to a precursor and colorants and additives are removed.2 This produces virgin-quality resin for use in new products. Mass balance is a chain-of-custody protocol that tracks recycled content through manufacturing processes to measure recycled content in end products. Third-party organizations such as International Sustainability & Carbon Certification verify mass balance claims (ISCC Plus certification).

With voluntary certifications like ISCC Plus and ISO 14001 – the international standard for an effective environmental management system – more companies can demonstrate that they are contributing to a circular economy. Additionally, the Healthcare Plastics Recycling Council (HPRC) and other like-minded organizations are key resources to aid the transition to packaging that is designed for recovery. These environmentally responsible practices have a ripple effect up and down the supply chain.

In May 2023, Beckman Coulter Diagnostics unveiled its DxI 9000 Access Immunoassay (IA) Analyzer. This new instrument was engineered with the latest technologies to maximize performance and optimize resources, including the packaging of its related consumable products. By achieving the primary goals of product protection, material minimization and recycling improvements, Beckman Coulter and its thermoformer partner are doing their part to support a more sustainable healthcare industry.

About the Author

Glenn Petrie is Plastic Ingenuity’s Commercial Director – Healthcare, overseeing the development of innovative, scalable and sustainable custom thermoformed solutions for the world’s leading healthcare brands.

Sources

1Plastic Ingenuity, Packaging Sustainability Stakeholder Study, 2022

2Closed Loop Partners, Transitioning to a Circular System for Plastics: Assessing Molecular Recycling Technologies in the United States and Canada, 2021

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