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Your Questions Answered: Sustainability in Packaging & Shipping

Attendees asked the following questions during a recent Leading Minds Network expert panel discussion entitled “Sustainability in Packaging and Shipping: Where Are We?” The panel was moderated by Karen Greene, CPPL, Vice President of Client Operations at Network Partners and included industry experts Joe Provo, Associate Director, Packaging Commercialization, Merck & Co., Inc.; Samantha Smith, Director of the Sustainability Center, Medtronic; and Jamie Pero Parker, Sustainability Team Lead at RTI Innovation Advisors.


Q1: Is the speed of regulatory intervention outpacing our ability to innovate? What gets better industry engagement, desire and ability to innovate or regulatory enforcement?

Samantha [Medtronic]:   Yes, but I'm seeing a shift at least in Medtronic. We're starting to get more proactive, we're starting to get more out in front of these things. So historically, regulatory was the big driver. If we were going to make a change, it was because regulatory was asking us to do that. We are starting to see that shift, I think industry wide, to look more proactively and make changes to our process. Even go back and change launched products and update them. So I think it's a little of both. 

Joe [Merck & Co., Inc.]:   I would agree it's still more regulatory. Therefore, we have to do something. However, it is moving more towards innovation for the sake of innovation. It’s historically a pretty conservative industry segment, so it certainly hasn't always been innovation for the sake of innovation. I agree with Samantha. We're seeing a shift also there.

Jamie [RTI Innovation Advisors]:   I relate this back over to a different problem in sustainability. I feel like we have all of the different sustainability challenges that are hitting us at one time. I'm going to relate this back to PFAS (polyflouroalkyl substances). We're seeing the legislation move fast and furious, particularly at a state level, where they're misaligned. I do worry when I see that innovation coming out that quickly--and without the insight of industry in there--that we're going to put ourselves back in the same place. We got to the place with PFAS where we are today. It was called regrettable substitution. We replace the molecules that we knew were bad with molecules that some could argue are actually worse. I worry that as fast as companies are being asked to replace chemistries that we are going to just have another iteration of regrettable substitution and push it down for the next generation.


Q2: When designing an introducer device that helps insert an implantable device in the body, how important is it to make the introducer reusable, sterilizable, etc.? The introducer does NOT remain in the body.

Joe [Merck & Co., Inc.]:   Seems like the question is getting at whether it is “worthwhile” to design the unit as disposable in a lower environmentally impactful way, or reusable. Everything is “disposable,” how it is disposed is what really matters. My perspective is that it would be worth assessing whether the complexity of designing the unit to be reusable or lower impact would overshadow the potential benefits for something that might be low volume and complicated to design, given design controls requirements for devices (making some assumptions there).  LCAs are not always the answer, but in this case engaging someone to help them with an LCA for the device would show you where the potential opportunities are, then you can determine what makes sense to do.  There are almost always opportunities to reduce/reuse, but it can be hard to see where or how. LCA could help with that. Whether or not making the device “sustainable” drives value is a question you could explore with your customer base also. 


Q3: It was mentioned that collecting data on packaging use before shipping even begins is important. Please elaborate on how, and what data points are useful to build into a sustainable packaging strategy?

Joe [Merck & Co., Inc.]:   I think this question is partly related to what I was saying earlier. Way back in the early stages of development for pharma, you need to be thinking about the implications that might be three, four or five, six years in the future and into the supply chain and value chain. Maybe it wasn't as much about specific data points, but building in design criteria or guardrails that are in the direction of lower impact ultimately. Like back to the basics of using less stuff. Using optimizing dose density is one of the things that we focus on, asking how many doses fit on a pallet. That can be a very simple question to ask.

After years in development, a lot of different things can occur to get something to market, all the different regulations and cold chain shipping. It can result in not quite what you expected. So for pharma it might be a question like why do we need that size container with that amount of head space? Or do we need that size of a blister with that much space in between the tablets. For Merck, it is many different modalities. So there are lots of ways it can go. Have you thought about it early on? Way early on… maybe earlier than we're used to. That's just the holistic thinking that needs to happen.


Q4: How do you manage the additional cost attributed to reverse logistics when considering “reuse” when it comes to reduce, reuse, recycle? How do you work with your suppliers to help get the packaging returned?

Joe [Merck & Co., Inc.]:   Yeah it's a really good question. It's the question when we start to think about programs that potentially involve takeback programs or the like. It's pretty case-specific for us. We do have some examples of this. It's really relates to what we were talking about earlier: how you scope and what data you capture, both from an environmental impact standpoint and then the value end of things, a financial standpoint. So at least to speak for Merck, obviously we have distribution, logistics and supply chain groups that we work with in order to determine and make analyzes on whether this going to be worth it and is it going to have the impact that we're looking for.

The supply chain is so “leg” specific. It's very carrier specific… location specific… and geography specific. A very case-by-case study for us.

Jamie [RTI Innovation Advisors]:   I'm going to go back to kind of a consumer product example again because I think they're a little bit ahead. Not very much far ahead on reuse and refill, but they've been trying it.

I think there are bigger questions than how to get it returned. The first one is consumer behavior change. That nut has not been cracked. We actually had a company come to us not long ago trying to figure out how to solve this. They were one of the early adopters in consumer products of refill, and they're not getting anywhere near the return on containers that they need to make this a viable business case and continue to do it.

And so they asked us: We can't meet our goals on our packaging goals unless we have this. How do we solve this problem? The first question we need to ask is how we force consumer behavior change, because it's obvious that it's not going to just happen on its own. One of the things that I suggested is working with your competitors and all jumping off that refill and reuse “cliff” together, holding hands… because then you force it.

I think you do it harmoniously like that together. Think about a hospital doing refill and reuse. If Medtronic has one program for refill and reuse and they want their containers back a certain way, and Merck has another one that's completely different, the hospital has to have a place to store all of those containers and they've got to be separating those.

If we worked collaboratively, where we're all on a level playing field and we're doing it the same way, that would make it a lot easier for the hospital to integrate.

Samantha [Medtronic]:   Just to add one last point on this, medical device is highly regulated, and potentially hazardous waste or contaminated biohazard waste. So there are added layers of complexity when looking at reverse logistics. How do we make sure that we're hauling it appropriately? That's always a consideration.

The regulations around that are very strict. So we want to make sure that we're not creating a bigger problem by hauling waste back. There is a lot to consider and it's very complex.

Joe [Merck & Co., Inc.]:   To build on all of that, this is a bit like how do we get to Jamie's point of all working together, right? Many organizations are. The good news is looking for opportunities in circularity, right? I know in health care, Plastics Recycling Council is one of them. We know of them. We're starting to engage and work with them, but there are probably others. That is the good news. That there are ways to engage to try to find those opportunities.

If we look at these things as opportunities, you can make progress there. So making the connections, and having the support within your own organizations to do that is huge too. There are organizations looking specifically at these connection points that you might not normally think of when we think about our supply chains in our value chains, and our relationships from a business standpoint.


Q5: How much does sustainability go into the decision process when selecting suppliers? Does Ecovadis score play a big part in assessing these vendors?

Joe [Merck & Co., Inc.]:   A lot more recently. So scope three for Merck. A vast majority of our impact is scope three, which is where packaging suppliers sit. We have programs in place. We're working to constantly upgrade. As we work towards our scope three goals for our company, suppliers are going to play a huge role in that.


Q6: Is there currently a robust / equally inexpensive option to replace EPS for one time cold chain shippers?

Karen [Network Partners]:   Yes, there are alternative options available to replace expanded polystyrene (EPS) for one-time cold chain shippers. Some of these include various biodegradable and compostable materials, such as molded pulp. These materials are environmentally friendly, renewable, and offer good insulation properties for temperature-sensitive shipments. They can be easily disposed of or recycled after use.

Other alternatives include certain recyclable plastics, such as polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). These materials are lightweight, durable, and can be recycled or repurposed after use, reducing your environmental impact.

Reflective insulation materials, such as radiant barrier films or foils, offer an alternative approach to thermal insulation. These materials reflect radiant heat, helping to maintain temperature stability inside your shipper. They are often combined with other insulating materials to create a comprehensive solution.

Paper based insulation materials can be effective for temperature control, in combination with phase change materials. There are manufacturers of 100% biodegradable cellulose insulation panels with an outer casing, containing air pockets that slow the heat transfer as well as designs including cellulose batting or fillers inside corrugated panels. Additional insulative filler materials for shipper liners are produced from recycled PET scrap. Another sustainable insulative packaging product is cotton-based panels wrapped in a bio-based film that are used to line a shipping box. All these sustainable thermal solutions can be used in combination with phase change materials to target the required phase change temperature necessary to engineer the product user requirements specification for temperature, duration and excursions.

Lastly, another option is phase change materials (PCMs), substances that can absorb or release heat energy during phase transitions, providing thermal buffering and temperature stabilization. They can be incorporated into your packaging materials or used as separate inserts.

It's also important to consider factors such as cost, performance requirements, recyclability, and environmental impact when choosing an alternative to EPS. Suitability of these alternatives may vary depending on your specific application and budget.



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