Recycling possible in the pharmaceutical industry

When it comes to sustainable packaging of pharmaceuticals, legislation has set tight limits for pharmaceutical companies. Recycling in the pharmaceutical industry is difficult, but not impossible.

“Primary packaging” for pharmaceutical packaging is subject to a number of requirements, such as stability and climatic conditions, which often make sustainable packaging and recycling impossible. Even in the case of secondary packaging (such as the outer carton of a medicinal product), any change to the packaging must be approved by the authorities, and is therefore very time-consuming.

The situation is different for life science products. The Darmstadt-based pharmaceutical group Merck, for example, has launched a programme as part of its sustainable packaging strategy to replace polystyrene with moulded parts. In the past, glass reagent bottles were secured to prevent breakage in transport with moulded parts made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), also known as Styropor®. Although this is considered an excellent buffer material, it is made from non-renewable petrochemicals and, as Merck discovered, is difficult to recycle.

Fibre mouldings on the other hand can be recycled with other paper materials and compacted for storage and transport. EPS is now replaced as far as possible with moulded parts made of cellulose and recycled paper fibres: Some of Merck’s bottles are now protected in 4×4-litre, 4×2.5-litre and 6×1-litre shipping cartons, replacing about two million EPS moulded parts annually. In total, Merck reports it used about 669 tons of fibre packaging material in 2018. Safety tests of new fibre parts are currently being carried out for shipping other bottle sizes.

Merck operates a closed-loop recycling system of the best kind for solvents for preparative chromatography, which are supplied in reusable stainless steel containers. Customers return the empty containers to Merck, where they are properly cleaned and reused. There are currently around 32,000 of these serialised stainless steel containers in circulation in Europe. The return rate is around 90 per cent.