Sustainability in processing and packaging technology; Technological solutions for ecological challenges
Dr. Ing. Carsten Weiß
Vice President Engineering
Bosch Packaging Technology

The article analyses current ways of the pharma industry to make for more sustainable packaging and manufacturing processes, from utilising biodegradable plastics and fibre-based packaging to integrating energy -saving process equipment into their manufacturing lines. Further, the article takes a deep dive into how connected industry solutions can help reduce and optimize energy consumption.

Increasing urbanization, smaller household sizes and an ageing population are fundamentally changing the expectations for food and pharmaceutical packaging. At the same time, there is a growing need for more sustainable packaging solutions and processes. But according to Carsten Weiß, Vice President Engineering at Bosch Packaging Technology, no single company can rise to this challenge alone. In order to develop packaging concepts that are both truly sustainable and appealing to consumers, manufacturers, material and packaging suppliers, as well as mechanical engineering and waste management companies need to join forces.

In the majority of industrialized nations, the "Supersize Me" mentality is now a thing of the past. Given the demographic change and more responsible consumer behavior, the current trend is toward smaller portions. This can also be seen in the growing demand for convenience and on-the-go products. In many growth markets, small portions are also the number one choice due to consumers' limited financial resources. As a result, packaging sizes are becoming smaller, yet the number of individual packages is constantly on the rise. Although the sense of environmental responsibility among the general public is improving, every year more than eight million metric tons of plastic litter find their way into the ocean, due in part to insufficiently established or poorly implemented waste disposal processes. According to figures from the UN, this amounts to roughly one garbage-truck load per minute. In parallel, more and more effort is being put into the development of sustainable packaging and environmentally friendlier manufacturing processes.

In the future, there will be a greater focus on fulfilling the requirements of the circular economy. There is a greater demand for packages that are "designed for recycling", for example by using easily separable materials, mono-material packaging, and renewable materials. But what good does the most environmentally friendly packaging design do if it is not compatible with processing and packaging machinery? Or if the process steps involved in its manufacturing, filling, packaging and disposal involve much higher energy consumption? All parties involved in the production and supply chain have to work together to devise more sustainable solutions. The outcomes of key initiatives like Save Food, CEFLEX and European Bioplastics can offer valuable insights into future needs.

On the lookout for new packaging concepts

Some of the most important trends on the packaging market include the further development of conventional materials, research into new combinations of materials, and the introduction of more efficient processes. In this regard, various parties are already working hand in hand to find new solutions that reflect the spirit of sustainability. When it comes to achieving these goals, expertise from disparate, not directly related fields can be vital. For example, the automotive industry has been investing heavily in optimizing materials and processes for the past several years. With regard to products with extremely high barrier requirements, like battery cells, the spotlight is on optimizing flexible packaging materials. Lessons learned from these efforts can - provided they are available - be directly applied to the development of new packaging solutions and production concepts for food and pharmaceuticals.

Many research activities focus on the development of bio-based or biodegradable plastics that satisfy the requirements for food packaging. Bio based plastics often offer a better CO2 balance than conventional plastics. Biodegradable plastics are particularly advantageous if they can easily be broken down by microorganisms. Compostable materials are an especially good choice for food packaging where the product and its packaging often enter the waste disposal cycle together - as is the case with coffee capsules or teabags.

Figure 1: Bosch Packaging Technology is investing in new technical solutions to ensure more sustainability in processing and packaging engineering.

Nonetheless, biodegradable plastics do not represent a cure-all for the pollution of our environment and oceans: as they break down, carbon dioxide, water and methane are released. Methane has a much more higher effect on global warming than CO2, which is why it is burned to CO2 and H2O at managed waste disposal plants. Biodegradable plastics that are additionally bio -based offer a much better CO2 balance, while those that are based on renewable raw materials can produce other negative environmental impacts, including eutrophication, increased soil acidity, and air pollutants. Generally speaking, rapidly degradable plastics are particularly advantageous for the environment when they are "marine degradable," that is when they break down in seawater. Needless to say, it should still be our goal to reduce the amount of marine litter to a minimum; in this context, good recycling solutions and smoothly running disposal systems are elementary.

First concepts already put into practice

Companies are also working intensively on new concepts in the area of fiber -based packages, so as to satisfy the circular economy's criteria for recyclability and the use of renewable materials without compromising product protection. For example, the first sealed paper packaging consists of mono-material paper instead of polymer film, making it completely recyclable. It is suitable for dry food like sugar, pasta, cereal or powder. Until recently, packaging products in monomaterial paper was only possible with glued, premanufactured bags or with glued paper packaging produced by mandrelwheel systems. With the new solution, food products can now also be packaged and sealed with vertical form fill seal(VFFS) machines, which translates into higher flexibility concerning the choice of format and packing style. Moreover, VFFS sealing delivers improved product protection and dust tightness. Thanks to the use of FSC- or PEFC-certified paper, this approach is truly sustainable - from the raw material to recycling - and offers a viable alternative to plastic for products with low barrier requirements.

In addition to mono-material packaging and compatibility with VFFS machines, additional future applications are imaginable. By suitably modifying current packages, the number of different materials needed could be reduced. Also, the increasingly stringent barrier requirements for product protection could be satisfied. However, a good deal of further development work will be needed to keep costs low while achieving a high degree of product protection and environmental protection, as a recent analysis (see graphic 1) shows. While the majority of materials are out of the question for use in the pharmaceutical industry due to the extremely high standards for product protection, the food segment also often has to sacrifice shelf life for the sake of higher sustainability. Accordingly, all parties involved will continue to have their hands full trying to optimally reconcile packaging requirements, cost efficiency and environmental protection.

Figure 2: The first sealed paper packaging consists of mono-material paper instead of polymer film, making it completely recyclable.

Although the pharmaceutical industry faces more complex challenges given the high barrier requirements for its products, some secondary packaging concepts are already available that may prove to be visionary. When it comes to fragile products like syringes, vials and ampoules, as well as applicators such as insulin pens, conventionally a mix of materials has been used to ensure their safety. However, a new, tray folding carton made entirely of cardboard and featuring variable inlays could offer an alternative solution. Thanks to the use of a single packaging material, there is no more need for plastic trays. Consequently, there is also no need to separate different classes of materials during recycling, which translates into better sorting and more efficient recycling outcomes.

Energy recovery during ongoing processes

Conserving resources is another key aspect of sustainability in the processing and packaging industry. In the energyintensive pharmaceutical industry, for example, innovative energy recovery concepts are yielding significant savings. In the sterilization process, heating and cooling energy are recovered, which can mean up to 40 percent lower heating costs and 60 percent lower cooling costs. When it comes to ultra pure steam generation and distillation, the latestgeneration systems use a preheater to reduce hot steam consumption by roughly 30 percent. In cleanroom production, up to 65 percent lower energy costs in connection with hot and cold water, steam and electricity can be achieved with the help of cutting-edge isolator technology depending on the air supply system used.

Similar concepts can now be found in the food sector: thanks to heat recovery, new systems used, for instance, to separate masses in the manufacture of jelly products consume only half as much energy. In addition to lower overall operating costs through reduced energy consumption, reducing the steam pressure in the separation process by 0.3 bar subjects the product to less thermal strain, helping preserve both quality and taste .

Keeping an eye on resource consumption with industry 4.0

The latest software solutions in the area of digitization show how manufacturers can conserve resources with their existing machines and lines, by asking questions like: which machines consume the most electricity? At which point in which process step do we use most energy? Thanks to the progressive connectivity of production, we now enjoy access to more and more data, which can also be used for consumption analysis: sensors provide data, for instance on energy and compressed-air consumption, allowing us to analyze these parameters over a given timeframe. These often very different types of data can be bundled and analyzed on a single platform, and displayed in real-time on the Human Machine Interface (HMI) of a given machine or line. In this way, fluctuations, peak loads and irregularities can be identified - and effectively remedied.

Figure 3: arious packaging materials are used in the food industry, depending on the specific product and barrier requirements.

Thanks to industry 4.0, we will soon be able to use increasingly detailed data, paving the way for more fundamental analyses ranging from individual machines to entire plants. In turn, predictive analytics will help us spot potential sources of higher consumption and errors in advance - and identify corresponding potentials for optimization, leading to more efficient and resourceconserving production processes.

Trinity of design, material and machine

Several different aspects are important in the context of selecting suitable packages and processes: in addition to cost efficiency, more attention is being paid to barrier properties, processability, mechanical requirements, quality, and compliance with regulations. In this regard, sustainability will become more and more important in the future. When it comes to developing new packaging concepts and systems, factors like recycling, energy and resource efficiency have already become an integral part of performance specifications. Leading processing and packaging machinery providers are already working closely together with their customers in various pilot projects to develop comprehensive solutions based on a trinity of design, material and machine.

This can best be achieved by getting material manufacturers, brand owners and their customers on board at an early stage. As part of the UX (User Experience) approach, feedback is collected on various parties' expectations and needs, and is then directly integrated into further developments. In addition to individual customer needs, regional specifications like legal requirements, consumer mentality and the degree of automation in production also have to be kept in mind. Only then can solutions be found that will allow the emerging markets to establish ecologically sound production, packaging and disposal concepts in their own regions. And this can only succeed if producers and materials developers, packaging manufacturers and mechanical engineering firms, as well as logistics, waste management and recycling companies act in concert, so that the entire packaging industry actively contributes to more sustainability.