Cutting Waste in the Cold Chain - Geraint Thomas, Laminar Medica

Geraint Thomas

Geraint Thomas, Technical Director at Laminar Medica, explains the importance of considering how your temperature controlled packing system impacts on the environment, and suggests an approach for minimising both your waste and costs.

The suppliers and users of temperature controlled packaging systems are under increasing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of Cold Chain shipping. The widespread introduction of formal corporate social responsibility policies, together with new customer expectations and more strict regulations, mean that developing a suitable packaging system is more challenging than ever.

Before we even consider its environmental credentials, packaging has to fulfil a number of functions. Perhaps most importantly, it must ensure its contents are protected in storage and distribution, and delivered to the consumer or business end-user in good condition. This is particularly difficult when long distances and time-scales are involved, commonly subjecting the packaging to extreme temperatures and hazards such as vibration, moisture, heat, and light penetration. Furthermore, it must be robust and secure, but also compact and lightweight, in order to keep shipping costs down.

To produce a Pharma Packaging system that both meets these criteria and has minimal impact on the environment, a careful balance must be achieved, using the right design and the right materials. In the retail and food industries, eco-packaging design has become big business. Innovative new packaging materials are increasingly available in these sectors, produced from more sustainable resources, such as crops, or materials that compost or biodegrade easily in a short time period. Additionally, there are many incentives to help reclaim and reduce packaging materials, such as loyalty points for using multi-use rather than disposable carrier bags.

Some of these latest technologies are now finding their way into cold chain shipping, but it is vital that the specific requirements of an application are thoroughly understood before deciding on a solution. While it might seem at first necessary to reduce the amount of packaging used, it is important to note that under packaging is usually far worse for the environment than over-packaging. Over-packaging by 10% means that 10% of the resources needed to produce the packaging are wasted, and extra fuel will be needed to distribute it. However, under-packaging that results in the product being spoilt or damaged wastes 100% of the resources used to produce both the contents and its packaging, and all the fuel used to distribute it.

Life cycle analysis

There are a number of ways to approach developing an eco-packaging system. For instance, carbon foot-printing assesses the total amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases emitted over the full life-cycle of the product. While this provides a measure of the potential impact a solution has on climate change, it is often incorrectly used as a proxy for total environmental impact. A carbon foot-print is just one part of the data that would be covered by a life cycle assessment, which measures the overall environmental impact of a system, and is therefore considerably more effective.

An LCA (Life Cycle Assessment), takes into account the entire life cycle of a product, from the extraction and processing of raw materials, through manufacturing and distribution, to final use and disposal, or recycling. This allows us to better understand the connections between the consumption of resources, energy use, waste, and wider environmental challenges like climate change. Through LCA, we can learn how to reduce the environmental impact of a product and make better environmental choices.

While most temperature controlled packaging suppliers do not have the expertise to conduct such studies internally, leading companies, such as Laminar Medica, are able to employ the services of an external consultancy to undertake an LCA of its packaging solutions. In addition to life cycle analysis and assessment, these specialists offer an array of services addressing environmental issues in packaging, including environmental policy and strategy development, technology solutions, and carbon foot printing.

Minimising waste

One of the most important elements of the life cycle analysis is looking at how much waste a system generates, and whether its component parts can be disposed of responsibly. The UK government’s "waste hierarchy" of "reduce, re-use, recover, dispose" provides a useful way of assessing the environmental impact of the materials used in a packaging system.


Preventing waste at the source, or eliminating waste before it is created, is the most effective way to minimise a system’s impact on the environment. Many companies are concerned about the amount of packaging their products are transported in, and try to avoid goods that they consider to be ‘over-packaged’. Examples of over-packaging could be the use of standard sized boxes, which can lead to wasted space, or an over-engineered solution, which wastes valuable resources.

Packaging can be optimised by reducing its weight or size. This can be achieved by selecting the most thermally efficient materials. For example, insulation materials such as vacuum insulation panels and Neopor EPS have much better thermal insulation properties than traditional foam materials, and can therefore be reduced in size for the same effect. Many of the latest refrigerant materials require no additional packaging materials other than an insulation layer and the refrigerant. Once again, this allows the size of a package to be reduced.

In addition to requiring less materials and energy to manufacture, smaller systems offer many other benefits, including enabling more packages to be stored and shipped, reducing the energy needed for transportation, and cutting shipping costs. It is worth noting that optimising the loading and transportation of packages helps to reduce environmental impact in the same way. For instance, large fully loaded packages typically have less impact per unit of product shipped than smaller part-filled packages. Less energy is also required to manufacture and transport large packages for the volume of products they are capable of containing.


If packaging materials can be efficiently reclaimed, it makes sense that they should be re-used. However, efficient recovery is often difficult in cold chain distribution. The companies shipping pharmaceuticals rarely have a return-to-base infrastructure in place, or the facilities to reprocess materials themselves. As a result, the cost, and indeed the environmental impact, of arranging return-to-base transport, cleaning components, and reprocessing can often eliminate re-use as a viable option, particularly for those organisations that operate internationally.

Conversely, re-use can work well for wholesalers, distributors and companies that have delivery vehicles distributing products directly to the end recipient. In most cases, the packages can easily be reclaimed after delivery and returned to base on the return leg of the journey. If this is not possible, operators can off-set the environmental impact of the return transport by collating materials together in bulk, for example.

By their nature, re-usable packages are typically manufactured from more robust materials, often incorporating plastic cases, metal skinned insulation panels, or rigid plastic refrigerant encapsulations. This generally makes the initial cost of developing a packaging solution higher, although with the right return-to-base system in place, this additional cost can be recouped reasonably quickly. Re-useable packaging components need to be both easy to clean and robust enough to withstand handling over many distribution cycles. In some cases, users have successfully re-used more traditional packaging components such as EPS (expanded polystyrene) cases and flexible cool-pack systems, by implementing rigorous inspection procedures. These include ensuring the integrity of insulation materials and closures, and checking that critical parameters such as cool-pack weight remain as originally specified, and are therefore unlikely to compromise the thermal performance of the package.


Third in the waste hierarchy is the recovery of packaging material waste to provide the raw materials and/or energy to make new products. Recovery methods include recycling, composting, and energy recovery by incineration. Each of these is designed to reduce the demand for raw materials, and, as a result, minimise the environmental impact of packaging. Recovering materials uses less energy than producing goods from virgin material, and results in fewer emissions from processes including material extraction and transportation. Recycling also reduces the waste that goes to land-fill or incineration, cutting environmental damage and emissions still further.

It is worth noting that many traditional cold chain packaging materials are suited to recycling. For example, cardboard and plastic films, provided the latter does not comprise a mix of plastics, are widely recyclable. Additionally, recycled EPS content can be moulded with raw material to make new, first generation EPS products, while pre-expanded beads can also be recycled into second generation products.

Selecting the most appropriate system and materials for recovery is largely dependent on the destination where the package is to end up. For instance, materials ideal for energy recovery by combustion may be most suitable for shipping to countries such as Japan, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and France, where energy recovery of this kind contributes significantly to the countries’ electricity supplies.

For recovery to be carried out effectively, a mixed-media packaging solution must be easy to segregate. Material types should be clearly labelled, although it is important to remember that waste management labelling is not consistent around the globe and can vary between countries and markets. Most people understand and accept the mobius triangle, which indicates a recyclable material, but it is not always found on all types of materials.
A new family of recoverable materials, which are increasingly common in consumer food products, are bio-plastics. These materials, which include starch-based insulation foams and PLA (Polylactic Acid) films are typically produced from renewable resources, such as crops, and designed for composting after use. While these products can help minimise environmental impact if managed correctly, they can do more harm than good if disposed of improperly. Compostable materials that are sent to landfill in error may create methane as they decompose; methane is a potent greenhouse gas and is also explosive. Similarly, bio-plastics cannot be reclaimed and recycled with conventional plastic materials as this reduces material quality.

Perhaps the main reason why bio-plastics have yet to be commonly used in cold chain shipping is cost; they are generally considerably more expensive than conventional plastics due to the high cost of manufacturing them and the as yet limited demand for such materials. It is also worth considering the controversial issues surrounding their production, such as the use of land that would otherwise be used to grow food.


Disposal, which essentially means sending waste materials to landfill, is the least desirable end for packaging. The impact of disposing of materials in this way is now widely known, and ranges from damage to infrastructures caused by heavy transport, to pollution of local soil and groundwater.

Materials such as cardboard and bio-plastics are particularly unsuitable for landfill, as they promote the production of environmentally harmful gases such as methane. Perhaps surprisingly, EPS on the other hand has some advantages to landfill management. EPS is inert and non-toxic; as it does not degrade it does not leach any substances into ground water or produce methane. Indeed, EPS aerates soil, encouraging plant growth. While sending packaging materials to landfill is far from ideal, EPS can at least be disposed of with relatively little impact.

In summary

Minimising the environmental impact of cold chain shipping is increasingly important to companies transporting temperature sensitive pharmaceuticals. Balancing the eco-credentials of a packaging system with its ability to protect its contents reliably and cost effectively can be difficult. By working with a specialist supplier of temperature controlled packaging, organisations can asses their needs accurately, taking into account the entire life cycle of the packaging and finding a solution that works on every level.

The range of packaging solutions and materials now available is greater than ever, presenting many new and exciting opportunities, but it is important to think about how the materials you choose will be disposed of, and the impact this will have on the environment. The waste hierarchy provides a useful framework with which to do this. By specifying the most efficient packaging solution available, you can reduce your waste, improve the sustainability of your business, and ultimately lower your operating costs.
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