Plastic is the new GMO. It’s experiencing similar ostracization due to the large amounts of plastic produced each year that wind up in landfills and in the ocean. To contradict a popular cliché, customers can and do judge a book by its cover. This brings added importance to what supplements are packaged in. Nowadays, consumers aren’t just concerned with the food, drinks and supplements that they purchase – they’re also concerned with what those products come in. While this trend has already hit the food and beverage industry, it’s only a matter of time before it moves to other ingestibles. When it does, nutraceutical companies will have to be prepared with innovative ideas and a manufacturing process that is easily adaptable.
Some companies are turning to other materials, such as cardboard, to fill the role of plastic. For some industries, this works well. Especially when it’s a matter of replacing protective packaging, such as endcaps to protect hardware.1 However, in dietary supplements, using cardboard for a liquid supplement or coming up with a childproof lid that doesn’t involve plastic is a challenge. Depending on the supplement in question, there might be ways to still pull this off. If eliminating plastics from packaging isn’t an option, reducing it as much as possible will still be beneficial.
Instead of repurposing existing materials, some innovators are creating completely new packaging materials. Compostable packaging is gaining popularity due to the anti-plastic wave that the media and general public are currently riding. This has driven companies to turn to plant-based materials to make their packaging. One example of this is a sustainable packaging business that formulated a seaweed-based sauce packet to replace traditional plastic condiment packets.2 Companies interested in pursuing this route who don’t have the resources to overhaul their manufacturing processes can contract their packaging out to companies that specialize in this area.
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One way to fight the plastic war is to simply use less of it, or to reduce other packaging materials that aren’t environmentally friendly. This reduction might be visible to consumers if it’s part of the packaging of your product, but can also involve cutting packaging in other areas that are less visible. If this is the case, it’s important to communicate these reductions to consumers. This means being transparent in the manufacturing process to the point that reductions in other areas can be highlighted. For example, nutraceutical companies can work with suppliers to ensure they use less packaging when sending ingredients. Digital solutions can be used to automatically capture data on how much plastic is used and to track the reduction.
Companies that can’t get around the plastic conundrum are finding creative ways to maintain or improve their image as sustainable. One example of this is the nutraceutical company NOW, which is collecting its consumers’ packaging and recycling it, since normal recycling processes can’t handle it.3 The company simply melts down the waste that it receives and uses it for new packaging. Even though the materials are still not considered environmentally friendly, reusing the packing is helping the company’s image. Other companies may follow suit if they want to make themselves appear “greener.”
To make a bigger difference on a larger scale, some companies are banding together with other organizations that have similar goals. Making widespread changes to plastic packaging to make it easier to recycle, or managing the entire plastic supply chain requires coordination with many other companies that are dependent on plastic. Some of the largest companies in the world have already teamed up to make this attempt.4 Nutraceutical companies hoping to improve their image and minimize their plastic use need to think outside of just their companies to make a difference.
As if it wasn’t enough of a challenge to think of new ways to package products, companies must also tackle how to produce that packaging. This may not seem like an insurmountable hurdle until you consider that the new packaging might be made of more sensitive materials than plastic. Depending on the type of packaging a company selects, this could mean a completely new and sometimes lengthier manufacturing process. Regardless, using any new materials will require new standard operating procedures (SOPs), new training, possibly new equipment, and the ability to demonstrate compliance with those new processes.
Getting plastic out of the manufacturing process requires adaptation, which in turn requires a system that can quickly change. If your company is still dependent on binders filled with SOPs, handwritten batch records and a lengthy review process, change will happen slowly. Nutraceutical companies hoping to ditch plastic also need to ditch paper — at least when it comes to documentation. Document control software ensures that your new SOPs are the only ones being used and that all employees involved with the process are trained on the changes. You can further streamline your manufacturing process with electronic batch records that greatly reduce your review time once you start using your new packaging, allowing you to beat your competitors to market and go green before they do. Regardless of whether you’re using less plastic or replacing it altogether, with digital solutions you can make the change sooner.