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Packaging a medical device: sustainable packaging

Published: January 2023

Bex Jones
Bex Jones, Design Consultant

As stated in part 1 of our packaging a medical device series, it is increasingly important that sustainability is at the forefront of packaging design. Not only does it reduce your impact on the environment and minimises waste, but new innovative methods can further protect a medical device, and improve shelf life and product safety. It also creates a positive brand image and boosts loyalty among customers.

Whether it’s reducing the volume of materials or looking at the design of the packaging itself to make recycling easier, there are a variety of ways to protect products today that aren’t harmful to the environment. Here I discuss five ways in which you can improve sustainability in your packaging design:

  1. Use recyclable materials – for example, plant-based packaging.
  2. Sustainable manufacturing processes – identifying and selecting packaging manufacturers who have sustainability at the forefront.
  3. Avoid single-use packaging – use packaging that can be reused or repurposed to fulfil another need such as storage.
  4. Designing the product box to be as compact as possible – to optimise cold chain shipping and palletisation.
  5. Avoid over-packing in the supply chain – moving from the manufacturing to the packing process, additional packaging may be used for transporting products to the packing facility.

Use recyclable materials

The use of non-biodegradable materials and single-use plastics has slightly slowed the industry’s goals for sustainability. Substantial amounts of packaging are unable to be disposed of in existing recycling systems, particularly in products containing multiple materials.

Take for example a new hypothetical range of packaging – single material, 100% recyclable, 50% lighter and smaller than the previous range etc. Great effort, and a significant reduction in emissions related to manufacture and transport. But to be truly sustainable, it must be 100% recycled at end of life, otherwise it is just a continued – albeit reduced – consumption of a finite resource, which by definition is not sustainable.

Therefore, to improve the success rate for recycling, new materials must be closely considered.

New materials and processes such as paper injection moulds are examples of this. This technology is capable of moulding components with comparable technical and functional performance to plastic mouldings from a material which will naturally dissolve. A mottled, soft papery surface is familiar as a bio-degradable material, so users instantly recognise it as recyclable, providing reassurance.

medical device in packaging

Paper/pulp injection mould is regularly used by Shore, for product trays.

Labels are useful not only for displaying instructions, graphics and logos, they can also be used on a device to hide unsightly features such as screws and snaps. Traditionally, labels made from PET, PP or similar, are very hard to remove, and the adhesive left behind cannot be recycled. However, there are now solutions such as dissolvable label products to resolve this. For devices where exposure to water is not an option, labels could be readily peelable with a dedicated adhesive type (perhaps with a controlled method of accessing a peel start point).

Sustainable manufacturing processes

Manufacturers have, arguably, the most sustainability factors to consider, making selection of processes extremely important. The familiar, if not slightly clichéd, term for sustainability of “reduce, reuse, recycle” epitomises what is required in manufacturing.

Across production, we should strive for maximum reduction in energy usage, water usage, emissions, and waste. Reusing and recycling waste energy or materials provides a closed-loop manufacturing process and encourages carefully calculated and well-rounded design decisions.

Looping back, paper/pulp injection moulding demonstrates an eco-friendly and sustainable manufacturing process, where it has a 72% reduction in CO2 emissions across the full life cycle (from raw material to disposal) compared to manufacturing Polypropylene.

Avoid single-use packaging

Looking at the bigger picture the goal would be no unnecessary packaging at all, nothing that would need to be discarded while ensuring the product is safe and ready to be used. This would be quite the challenge with medical products, as they must be packaged safely, securely and kept sterile. However, a way of doing this would be to design the carton so that it could be reused in some way, turning the carton from the packaging into part of the product. Perhaps to support the device as storage, a holder etc.

Packaging should also be designed to support the cyclical process, allowing users to re-package used devices and return seamlessly. Circular lifecycles have been around for a while in sectors such as packaging, although this is still a relatively new behaviour for consumers and patients to adapt to. Gamifying the process and rewarding patients are ways to promote this behaviour.

A balance certainly needs to be struck where the device looks reassuringly robust and reliable, while at the same time it should also look acceptable for single-use disposable packaging.

Designing the product box to be as compact as possible

We’re all aware of online orders being delivered in large, unnecessary packaging

There have been massive developments in terms of sustainable packaging design over the last decade and improvements are continuously being made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain process. For example, making packaging smaller not only reduces the amount of material being used but also sterilisation, shipping, and storage costs. Along with the reduction in the shipping cost it also results in a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, the number of shipping containers required for transit is lower thus lower transit volumes.

In a recent project for a medical device company, we faced a brief where the carton’s role was not just for protection, but to be used to store the devices when they were not being used. With three devices that come as part of the kit it was important that the user was given a compact box to store these in if they wished. The user manual and other documentation is neatly stored in this carton. Holding onto a product’s packaging has more benefits other than the opportunity to use it as storage. If the device becomes damaged for example, having the original packaging makes it much easier to return.

This created an engaging user experience that allowed the other components to be revealed in order of use. Through good design, it is possible to create a small carton footprint that reflects your company values while delighting the user.

Avoid over-packing in the supply chain

Another rationale for making the product box as compact as possible is to optimise space, improve efficiency & reduce cost in the supply chain. When transferring from the manufacturing to the packing process, additional packaging can often be used for transporting products to the packing facility.

Shipment packaging must find the sweet spot between size and providing sufficient support to the product.

The awareness in this area has already encouraged changes in the industry. For security on pallet shipments, smart solutions have evolved, where a non-toxic, water-based cohesive is used to secure packages together, eliminating the need for large amounts of plastic shrink wrap.

But there is still a way to go with avoiding over-packing.

At Shore, our packaging design process encourages the specification of recycled materials and sustainable manufacturing methods, alongside detailed assessment of product lifecycle to reduce environmental impact. If you’re looking to improve sustainability in your packaging design, we can help. 

Contact us.

 

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