Reusable transport packaging is ideally suited to addressing pharmaceutical and healthcare industry challenges including IoT, solid waste reduction, ecommerce, and supply chain optimization, and these industries have been deploying reusable packaging for many years. Inbound to pharmaceutical manufacturing plants, reusable packaging products such as liquid IBCs and pallets are common. Within the plant, the use of reusable trays and containers also enhances production efficiency while outbound, reusable pallets, and health and beauty aid (HBA) totes are commonly used to distribute pharmaceutical products to retail.
In more recent years, developments such as IoT, reusable coolant packs, temperature-control bulk shippers and pooling services have expanded the value proposition for reusables within the pharma sector. Cardinal Health, the 2016 winner of the Reusable Packaging Association’s Excellence in Reusable Packaging Award, is a case in point.
Cardinal already was using reusable plastic totes with replaceable molded expanded polystyrene (EPS) liners when it decided to switch from single-use water-based coolant gel-packs to a reusable phase change material. Water-based coolants are more prone to causing freeze damage initially and then inadequate cooling after they melt. The newly introduced reusable coolant packs provided more uniform cooling.
Cardinal also introduced a reusable bulk pallet shipper that allowed it to ship both refrigerated and controlled room temperature products together on the same truck. This solution enabled Cardinal to avoid the expense of multiple vehicle shipments or moveable bulkheads to create separate temperature environments. The changes resulted in the company saving $5.6 million annually and avoiding $9.3 million in avoidable cost.
Pharma supply chain decision-makers are increasingly recognizing the importance of reusable packaging. The deployment of reusable transport packaging in the pharmaceutical/healthcare sector is on the rise, according to the recently released 2020 State of the Reusable Packaging Industry Report. In a survey conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, 80% of respondents reported significant or slight increases in reusable packaging usage during the previous 12 months. All respondents anticipated increased demand over the next 12 months – 60% expecting a significant increase and 40% projecting a slight increase.
Overall, the global pharmaceutical packaging market size is projected to surpass $142 billion by 2027, exhibiting a CAGR of 6.0% during the forecast period. The driving force behind that growth is an ongoing demographic shift – the steady increase in the number of older people in the world.
Reusable packaging suppliers pivoting to address the COVID-19 pandemic
Aside from supplying reusable packaging to the pharmaceutical/healthcare sector, the unique situation of the COVID-19 pandemic saw several leading reusable packaging suppliers step forward to fill urgent customer needs. For example, one Reusable Packaging Association member developed two beds. One of them, designed for hospital usage, includes IV bag stand placement, swing-arm side rails, and multi-position back support. The other lightweight, stackable model is designed for use at shelter sites, for example.
Other RPA members used their expertise in materials and fabrication to pivot into the production of other products, including face shields, face masks, workplace dividers and partitions.
Four reasons why reusables are the best medicine
Several pharmaceutical supply chain packaging trends speak to the need for reusables. Let’s look at how reusable packaging can make a positive difference:
Driving industry IoT adoption: Globalization, increasing regulatory requirements, and delivery time pressures are pushing the pharma supply chain to become smarter, noted one author, writing in Packaging Europe, “Advanced tracking systems, built into packaging, is…an exciting innovation,” the article observed. “Smart packaging technologies such as this will soon become the new industry standard.” IoT sensors, affixed to reusable pallets and containers, dramatically reduce the cost of tracking on a per-use basis versus single-use packaging.
Reducing solid waste: Another common theme in pharma packaging trend articles is solid waste reduction, one of the long-established benefits of reusables. For many hospitals, for example, switching from corrugated boxes to reusable totes has allowed them to dramatically reduce corrugated waste handling and accumulation.
Enabling e-commerce: The growth in ecommerce in the consumer products sector has been a primary driver for automated fulfillment. That trend is also being felt in the pharmaceutical supply chain. “The move is away from manual person-to-goods fulfillment to automated goods-to-person for pharma,” Modern Materials Handling reported. Automated fulfillment solutions benefit from the use of standardized reusable containers and pallets.
Optimizing pharma supply chains: As exemplified in the Cardinal Health case study referenced above, reusables can improve supply chain optimization. Cardinal benefited from improved freight utilization, the ability to commingle refrigerated and controlled room temperature products on the same truck, reduced product damage, and solid waste reduction. Pooling services can also help optimize supply chains by eliminating the need for reverse logistics.
The pharmaceutical/healthcare sector faces pressures to achieve full visibility, eliminate waste, increase fulfillment speed and efficiency through automation, and improve overall supply chain optimization. As explored above, industry insiders expect reusable packaging to play an increasingly important role as the pharma supply chain transforms.