What does "circular economy" mean for plastics
Minimising resources and waste
- Through material reuse
- By recycling, instead of downcycling
- No landfilling, no incineration of plastics
How the goal is achieved
- EU regulations for plastics
- Product design (e.g. packaging made of mono-plastic)
What does "circular economy" mean for pharmaceutical blisters?
- EU regulation in progress - results still open
- Main obstacle is the aluminium/plastic combination of pharmaceutical blisters
- Potential risk from pharmaceutical product residues with regard to blister recycling unclear
- Needs a separate collection system
Plan for the future
Scenario 1: Current recycling of blisters is accepted
- Implementation of a collection system and increase of recycling capacity
Scenario 2: Increase recycling capacity by using mono-material
- Aluminium foil needs to be replaced by a plastic lidding material (challenges: temperature resistance, push-through and sealing properties)
- Scenario 3: Future recycling processes
Definition of biobased plastic films
Bioplastics or biobased plastics are made partly or completely from renewable raw materials such as vegetable oils, corn starch, straw, wood chips, food waste and many more. The idea is to use them to replace conventional plastic films made from petrochemicals.
Definition of biodegradable plastic films
Biodegradable plastics can be produced from renewable raw materials or petrochemicals. The ability of biodegradability does not depend on the raw material. A distinction is made between two types:
Home compostable plastics
are able to decompose naturally within the environment of a domestic compost.
Industrially compostable plastics
can only be processed under special conditions in industrial composting plants.
Why PVC? The biggest advantages
- Used for decades as a primary packaging material in direct contact with the medicine
- One of the most researched plastics for interactions with the product or the active ingredients, with the result that it can be used without hesitation as a material for primary packaging.
- Even for critical pharmaceuticals and the regularly most demanding therapeutic field, inhalatives, the use is widespread and possible without hesitation
- Pharmaceutical quality is ensured by compliance with far-reaching regulations such as the European Pharmacopeia, United States Pharmacopeia and the national requirements of e.g. FDA, EMA, NMPA, ANVISA.
- Used in aluminium blisters as a laminated PVC film for direct contact with the product
- Transparent or coloured
- Wide processing range - best processing on thermoforming machines, at the same time low processing temperature
- PVC does not sag after heating
- High cycle times on thermoforming machines as e.g. 50% less heating energy is required than for polypropylene (for the same reason faster cooling after moulding)
- Very low shrinkage in the mould after forming - Dimensional stability
- Does not form fibres during punching
- Established separation process for aluminium lidding foil and PVC blisters for single-variety recycling in use
Is the world better without PVC?
When PVC was industrialised in the 1930s, it was a very welcome product to use an industrial by-product - chlorine. Chlorine is a product of the production of caustic soda, the latter being a necessary basic chemical of any developed industrial society. The production of 1000 kg of caustic soda produces about 850 kg of chlorine.
Chemistry behind caustic soda
In fact, using chlorine instead of emitting it into the environment or misusing it for barbarism like the German gas warfare in World War I was a major step towards a sustainable economy.
Without PVC, there would always be the problem of getting rid of the chlorine produced.
Today, PVC is one of the materials with the most diverse applications due to its many processing possibilities and properties. High-tech applications and healthcare applications know the advantages of the material.
Is PVC polymer harmful and causes cancer?
The polymer itself is not harmful, but the raw material from which PVC is made, called VCM (vinyl chloride monomer), is.
In the mid-20th century, when awareness in the chemical industry was just developing, careless handling of VCM actually led to reported deaths in the industry. The deaths were before plastics processing. Industry and legislation reacted and installed safety processes and strict limits, especially in Europe. PVC plants are subject to the Seveso III Directive and strict VCM limits apply through EU legislation, the European Pharmacopoeia but also the US FDA and many others. There have been no further reports of incidents since the 1970s and the material can be considered safe to handle.
Does the production of PVC polymers use toxic materials such as mercury?
The PVC manufacturing step involves at one point the electrolysis of sodium chloride to chlorine and caustic soda. For decades, various technologies were in use, including membrane electrolysis and the mercury-based amalgam process. The abolition of the latter process in the European Union at the end of 2017 not only destroyed mercury, but also reduced the carbon footprint of PVC in general by about 30% energy.
In fact, the latter process is also likely to be slowly replaced by another, even more effective "ODC" process.
Does PVC film contain harmful plasticisers (phthalates etc.)?
First of all, it is important to understand that pharmaceutical rigid PVC blister packs do not use plasticisers at all. Furthermore, the phthalates fade-out process has been followed in the European Union, but the industry uses this type of product.
Today, it is still often associated with PVC, but it has nothing at all to do with our packaging products.
Does PVC film contain harmful stabilisers?
Over the decades, different stabiliser combinations have been used for PVC depending on the application.
For applications such as construction, cadmium was phased out a long time ago and lead was also completely eliminated. For pharmaceutical packaging, our common industry has eliminated the dioctyltin stabiliser in the past and replaced it with less worrisome substances.
What happens during the thermal recycling of PVC?
PVC blister packs have a relatively high calorific value and today usually end up in the end consumer's household waste after use. In the Directive on the incineration of household waste, the European Union clearly regulates the incineration temperatures for its members in such a way that dioxin formation is avoided. When PVC is incinerated above 900°C, it is destroyed without leaving any residues except CO2 and water. Modern high-temperature incineration plants operate in the range of >1000°C .
More importantly, sustainability concerns teach us to put PVC products into recycling streams rather than incineration whenever possible. The European Commission is leading the way by requesting the study of a common collection system for medical waste. For PVC, very good mechanical recycling routes already exist today for long-life products. Potential opportunities may arise from the use of mono-material PVC blisters. Pharmaceutical blister packs today have the great advantage that they consist of >99% PVC/PVdC materials, which could be recycled.