Life Sciences Industry Strives to Become More Sustainable

The pharmaceutical industry is pivoting toward sustainability, embracing strategies to reduce waste, water/energy consumption, and use of non-renewable and non-recyclable materials © okskaz –

Environmental Responsibility is Now a Business Imperative

By Rebecca Marquez, Director, Custom Research at PMMI

Sustainability remains a dominant trend in packaging and processing, continuing to attract the attention of the life sciences industry and inspire its new initiatives. Although pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers must prioritize patient safety and product protection, concerns about climate change, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, plastic waste, and pressure to move toward a circular economy are prompting a greater focus on improving the sustainability of their products and packaging.

Evolving regulations and consumer preferences also influence the transition to more sustainable practices. As a result, pharmaceutical manufacturers are setting goals to achieve climate-neutral production and beginning to produce annual sustainability reports, often aligned with Global Reporting Initiative Standards. Reports may include the presentation of certified Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions data. (see sidebar).

Global Reporting Initiative Standards

© Ticha –

Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases (GHG), and include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases emitted from commercial, industrial and household applications and processes. 2

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines Scope 1 emissions as direct GHG emissions from sources controlled or owned by an organization. For example,  emissions associated with the organization’s fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces and vehicles.

Scope 2 emissions are indirect GHG emissions associated with purchasing electricity, steam, heat, or cooling used by the organization.

Scope 3 emissions, also called value chain emissions, often represent most of an organization’s total GHG emissions. The Scope 3 emissions for one organization are the Scope 1 and 2 emissions of another organization.

Scope 3 emissions are the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly affects in its value chain. Scope 3 emissions include all sources not within an organization’s Scope 1 and 2 boundaries.

Tactics to Achieve Sustainability Goals

Pharmaceutical manufacturers are working on many fronts to be more sustainable. The top three strategies are refining packaging formats, requiring OEMs to improve their energy-efficient ratings, and lightweighting, according to a recent survey of end users by PMMI Business Intelligence, a division of PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.

Tactics to achieve these sustainability goals include:

  • Eliminating or minimizing plastic
  • Lightweighting or downgauging materials
  • Shifting from non-recyclable to recyclable materials
  • Transitioning to renewable materials
  • Specifying materials with recycled content
  • Adopting reusables and establishing a reusables infrastructure
  • Designing for cube efficiency, waste reduction, and the smallest carbon footprint
  • Awareness of the growing number of extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws
  • Acceptance of a broader definition of sustainability, which includes ESG (environmental, social, and governance) policies and may involve efforts to save energy, reduce water consumption, and minimize the carbon footprint of each process, product, package, production line, and supply chain.

To spearhead these efforts, suppliers are innovating new products to bolster these strategies while embracing sustainability-focused approaches. New options include mono-material structures such as tubes, metal-free nasal pumps, and blister film and lidding combinations that are easier to recycle, as well as materials with recycled content, including some glass and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) containers and PET blister films. Lightweighted glass vials are also available.

Policy Changes are Critical

While recyclable and recycled-content materials are critical to achieving a true 360 life cycle, a successful transition and implementation of new, greener developments will require policy changes. Both recyclable and recycled-content materials are critical to circularity. However, a successful transition to a circular economy depends on more than recyclability and the specification of recycled content; it also will require policy changes to improve collection, enhance sortation, and boost capacity for end-of-life reprocessing, according to the 2023 PACKAGING COMPASS: Evaluating Trends in U.S. Packaging Design Over the Next Decade and Implications for the Future of a Circular Packaging System, a report published by PMMI and AMERIPEN.

To achieve these policy changes, industry and government will need to work together to establish:

  • EPR programs which shift financial and operational responsibility for end-of-life management of products to producers instead of taxpayers and the
  • Universal access to recycling and composting services for all households.
  • Standardized definitions ensuring stakeholders communicate a consistent message, minimizing consumer confusion.
  • Alternatives to material bans so the option with the least environmental impact can be chosen for each application.
  • Federal investment into programs to develop more efficient packaging design and waste management.
  • Data collection to measure and benchmark the performance of a circular packaging economy.

Circularity will likely become a more urgent objective if the European Commission’s proposed amendment to its Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive is approved. This regulatory change would make the directive a regulation, set stricter sustainability standards, and push the industry toward greater use of recycled materials. In addition, countries around the world are passing laws regulating single-use plastics. These laws range from outright bans to phase-outs and recycling strategies. Although targeted primarily at retailers carrying bags and food service supplies (e.g., cups, containers, and straws), the momentum against single-use plastics could broaden and accelerate.

Manufacturers Seek Sustainable Alternatives

Consequently, pharmaceutical manufacturers actively seek alternative plastics, particularly single-use plastics. However, shifting away from single-use plastics is challenging for the life sciences industry, where product sterility is often required. Nevertheless, interest is growing in replacing plastic with renewable paper, paperboard, and PET containers made from plant-based sources rather than petrochemicals.

Development efforts also prioritize reusables, especially for secondary and distribution packaging, and increasingly for primary packaging, such as inhalers. However, significant obstacles persist notably the expense of implementing reverse logistics systems. These systems offer convenient, safe, and hygienic collection points and address the pressing need for more interactive and validated safety packaging that ensures robust traceability and enhances authentication.

Furthermore, equipping production lines to clean and reuse packaging presents another challenge. As highlighted in the PMMI/AMERIPEN report, realizing reusables as a viable option requires collaboration among multiple stakeholders.

Although cost is an obstacle to becoming a more sustainable operation, digitalization could advance the process. “As more processes become automated, it’s easier to make green optimizations. … when you use Data Science to monitor and log everything happening in systems, you finally have an idea of what the waste is, how much there is, and where it’s happening,” notes Fausto Artico, global R&D tech head and product director of Innovation and Data Science at GSK, in The Future of Pharma Production, Manufacturing and Packaging Trend Report, published in 2023 by Connect in Pharma. [2]

The pharmaceutical industry’s pivot toward sustainability reflects a broader movement in global business practices where environmental responsibility is not just a choice but a business imperative. By prioritizing sustainable sourcing, eco-friendly packaging, energy efficiency, and waste reduction, early adopters set precedents for others to achieve a greener future.

Discover Solutions at PACK EXPO International

Discover the latest sustainability solutions for packaging and processing challenges at PACK EXPO International 2024 (November 3–6, McCormick Place, Chicago). Located centrally for many pharmaceutical manufacturing operations, PACK EXPO International provides a convenient and easy-to-access venue for bringing teams to assess the latest technologies, learn from leading industry experts, and make valuable connections to meet current or upcoming sustainability projects.

Attendees can also visit the Healthcare Packaging Pavilion, a top destination for life sciences companies, which houses innovations in biologicals, medical devices, nutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals. For more information and to register, go to

About the Author

Rebecca Marquez is the Director, Custom Research at PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Rebecca was hired at PMMI in 2016 as a manager of business intelligence, responsible for the execution and analysis of PMMI’s internal market research projects.  Due to her proven track record of success in quantitative and qualitative execution and analysis, project management and business development skills, in March of 2021 Ms. Marquez was given a leading role in the development and building of PMMI Media Group’s Custom Research initiative, a new offering of proprietary research services for PMMI members and packaging industry professionals.  In addition to her responsibilities in PMMI Business Intelligence, Ms. Marquez is responsible for the design, execution, and production of PMMI’s market research products for external clients.






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