Solutions Spotlight: Pharma's drive towards more sustainable packaging

Oct. 27, 2020

Chief Content Director Karen Langhauser is joined by Richard Wood, Executive Director of Technical Solutions at Softbox Systems

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Karen Langhauser: I'm Karen Langhauser, Chief Content Director of Pharma Manufacturing magazine, and you're listening to a special solution spotlight edition of "Off Script," Pharma Manufacturing's podcast about what's happening behind the scenes in our magazine and what's trending in the drug industry. This week, in our solution spotlight, we're diving into a complex issue facing pharma manufacturers—sustainability. Specifically, we want to talk about more earth-friendly options for temperature control packaging. Within the industry, we're seeing pharma manufacturers begin to shift away from the more traditional foam insulation packaging and look for more sustainable options that also don't compromise compliance. To that end, a lot of packaging vendors are stepping up and presenting the industry with some better options.

Joining me today to talk about this as Richard Wood, Executive Director of Technical Solutions at Softbox Systems. Having worked nearly his entire career in the cold chain industry, Richard has a wealth of knowledge and expertise in temperature control packaging and regulatory environment that he's going to share with us today. Welcome Richard.

Richard Wood: Thank you, Karen. Oh, very nice to join you today.

KL: Thanks for being here. I think this is a good time to talk about this because it seems like more and more companies across all industries are focusing on impact on the environment and striving to become more sustainable. How have you seen this play out in the pharma industry specifically?

RW: Yeah. So, I'd say in the last 10 years, I've seen with a lot of the global pharma companies that we support, the drive for sustainability is becoming increasingly important to those organizations and as an industry as a whole. So, in the cold chain packaging industry, to basically mirror the demands of our customers and their requirements for sustainability, we too have started to drive and are driving for greater sustainability within our packaging systems and particularly around the types of materials we use within our shipping systems to ensure that they don't just protect those lifesaving medications and keep them at the right temperatures, but they do it in a very sustainable and ecologically sound manner through careful selection of materials that can be basically either repurposed, recycled or reused at end of life.

KL: So, just to go back up a bit, so, what exactly do we mean when we say a shipping solution is sustainable? What makes the solution truly sustainable?

RW: Okay. That's a good question. So, there's different ways of looking at this. So, sustainability can come in various forms. You can create sustainability through reuse, and that is certainly something that Softbox supports many of its clients with is reuse programs of the thermal packaging systems, but another way to bring sustainability for an organization is to use packaging systems that can be recycled at end of life. So, if let's say, for example, a parcel shipper is being sent to a small clinic for surgery, it may have a few doses of a vaccine held within it. This style of distribution is often known as final mile. So, it's, kind of, the last piece of a supply chain. Those sites receiving it, so, it could either be a surgery, could even be a patient's home if it's a direct patient shipment. They're unlikely to have industrial recycling processes attached to those facilities.

So, what you're looking for there is something that can be easily curbside recycled. And what we have innovated in literally the past 12 to 24 months at Softbox are packaging solutions that are truly curbside recyclable by using material such as corrugate cardboard as the key insulation material that, like I say, it can be very quickly, easily and effectively recycled at end of life in a domestic environment.

KL: So, I mean, it sounds like the pharma industry is using quite a bit of packaging. In terms of impact, if pharma were to switch to a more sustainable option, what kind of impact would that have on the industry?

RW: Yeah. That's an interesting question and there's different ways of looking at the potential impact on, let's say, the move from the current types of packaging systems that may use materials such as expanded polystyrene. So, for example, there are materials that are often used in our types of packaging systems. They are recyclable materials, but only if you can get those materials to like, a facility that specializes in the recycling of those particular insulation materials, as far as scope and scale, I'd say that, and again, I'm just picking numbers off the top of my head, but based on experience, I'd say about 90 percent of the single-use systems that are out there are probably not being recycled in the most effective manner. So, switching and the reason for that is likely because they're made from materials that aren't easily recycled or don't have readily available recycling processes at the point of disposal. And by switching to material such as the insulated corrugate type materials that we have in our Tempcell ECO products, by having an insulation material that is paper-based, it's a very, very easy material to recycle. Recycling streams for paper-based products are everywhere. So, outside your home, you'll have a recycling garbage bin, and that's exactly where you can put these types of packaging systems and they will move very quickly into their own recycling stream without need for those specialist services.

KL: So, yeah. Wow. It's not like a potentially, I know, a pretty big impact on the environment. What challenges are faced by companies in the pharma sector when it comes to making a change from more traditional packaging to more sustainable options?

RW: Challenges. So, well, I mean, we're in a world of challenges at the moment with the current COVID-19 pandemic and it is shining a light on industries like the pharma sector and their supply chain. So, challenges for switching to more sustainable solutions. So, in the past, and it's not necessarily the top priority any longer, but certainly, in the past when it comes to these types of packaging systems and essentially the drivers within our clients organizations for, I'll say, compliance. So as products are moving from A to B, they have to be kept at a certain temperature for a certain duration as they're shipped and received. One of the main driving points of any design project to satisfy customers' needs was budget. So, price was a major factor that is still a key driver for many of the projects that we work on with our clients, but becoming increasingly important is that drive for sustainability.

So, I'd say the challenge is still to create packaging systems that can bring sustainability at a competitive price point. And I think that's certainly what we've achieved now with these new ranges of shipping systems that can be curbside recycled. There's always a balance between the price and performance. So, the performance requirement depending on the type of pharmaceutical product being shipped, that will be a driving factor on how much does the packaging system cost? You know, it's always a balance of price and performance. So, for certain types of product and certain ways in which those products are distributed, the sustainably or the sustainable packaging solutions are now achievable and now fit the requirements and tick enough boxes for them to be a viable alternative to the big pharma companies.

KL: So, it sounds like Softbox has come up with a bunch of solutions to these challenges and how are the advancements that are being made and temperature control packaging benefiting our clients?

RW: Yeah. So, what we're finding at the moment, again in this new world that we're operating in is that there's a lot more direct to patient-type shipments. So, because most people are being told to stay home and certainly those that may have pre-existing health conditions, certainly in the U.K., which is where I'm based, a lot of people that do have those underlying health issues are being encouraged to stay home wherever possible and therefore, the need for those people to receive their medication at home has never been more important. So, with respect to the demand for packaging systems that can ensure that the medication can be sent directly to a patient's home, be maintained at the right temperature, which is first and foremost the most important thing when it comes to thermal packaging systems use is that the products, the drugs inside remain effective all the way through to the patients receiving the products. And now, the other driving factor is once they receive that insulated container at their home, can they dispose of it in a sustainable and sound manner? And the answer is now yes. Yes, they can by using this new generation of temp silicone products that can be easily curbside recycled. So, again, maybe if we wound back five years, maybe the stars wouldn't be aligning and we wouldn't have that availability of sustainable packaging systems meeting the requirement, but we are, kind of, in a sweet spot of time where we have that capability. And you know, the timing is great because there's a lot of people that need these types of services being provided to them.

KL: Yeah. It certainly seems like the timing is right for this kind of innovation. So, you give the impression that there may be more to come on the innovation front. What's on the horizon with Softbox?

RW: Yeah. Well, I mean, as far as innovation goes, you know, necessity is the mother of all invention. So, at the moment, we're being challenged across the entire organization by many of our global clients to innovate around challenges that they're now facing. Whether that is shipping products before, you know, never use temperature ranges for new products they may be developing to help basically overcome the current pandemic. The drive for sustainable packaging systems. So, I've spoken about temp silicone and that is a small parcel shipper. So, we're looking at taking that same materials technology and applying it to our thermal blankets or our larger-scale thermal packaging systems, which can transport entire pallet loads of pharmaceutical products. So, we're looking to scale that technology to bring the sustainability into where it is today. We don't really have access to that use model.

Another area of innovation that we're seeing really starting to ramp up is a use of connected technologies. So, things like real-time monitoring by our clients and actually being asked by our clients to create combined systems which is a thermal packaging system with the capability to integrate real-time monitoring to bring greater visibility to the client's organizations.

KL: That's certainly good news for pharma companies looking to make a difference in the environment and with the patients. Thanks for chatting with me today, Richard.

RW: No problem at all. It was actually a pleasure Karen.

KL: It was good having you. This is Karen Langhauser, and you've been listening to a special edition of "Off Script," a pharma manufacturing podcast. Stay healthy and stay informed.

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