Packaging can be a critical aspect in the environmental performance of pharmaceutical products; however, few life cycle assessment studies were implemented for pharmaceutical packaging. The main goal is to assess the environmental life cycle impacts of different types of pharmaceutical packaging for medicines commercialized in pharmacies in Europe, aiming at identifying hotspots and opportunities for packaging improvement and providing recommendations.
A life cycle model was implemented for three types of pharmaceutical packaging (blisters, sachets, and bottles) most commonly sold in community pharmacies in Europe. The system boundary includes packaging production, assembly, and distribution to pharmacies. Twenty-three packaging alternatives, with different sizes and materials, have been analyzed. Distribution scenarios considering alternative production locations (Europe, Asia, the USA) and transport modes (truck, train, airplane, ship) have been assessed. The functional unit is the storage and delivery of medicines containing the same active pharmaceutical ingredient, dosage, and amount of medicines. Primary data were collected from the pharmaceutical sector. The life cycle impact assessment has been performed for five categories: global warming, abiotic depletion-fossil fuels, acidification, ozone depletion, and eutrophication.
Results and discussion
There is a high variation of impacts within the alternative packaging for the same medicine, being more significant for blisters (up to five times) than for bottles and sachets. Production of materials is the highest contributor. The use of aluminum presents very high impacts, particularly for acidification, while PVC has significant impacts for fossil fuel depletion. PVC is the forming film that presented the lowest environmental impacts, followed by PVC/PVDC and OPA/Alu/PVC. Truck transportation impacts are more significant for larger-size packaging, due to the amount of packaging transported being limited by volume rather than weight. Train and ship presented better environmental performance.
There is a great potential for ecodesign improvement in pharmaceutical packaging, particularly for blisters. There is a great potential for ecodesign improvement in pharmaceutical packaging, particularly for blisters, which should use PVC for the forming film and are preferable to sachets. Packaging with compact formats, avoiding empty spaces, and superfluous elements are recommended, which lead to a reduction of environmental impacts and production costs. Selecting means of transport with lower environmental impacts is highlighted, as the volume-limited capacity of vehicles is a critical hotspot for lightweight packaging. Lastly, recommendations are provided for the pharmaceutical packaging sector in Europe (and worldwide). The importance of LCA-based ecodesign is highlighted, providing directions for pharmaceutical stakeholders and future regulations.