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Reusable COLD CHAIN packaging solutions: what is the impact on costs and the environment?

29 August 2017

Every year, there are more than 5 million insulated packaging solutions and 20 million eutectic plates used in France by pharmaceutical companies, logisticians and healthcare establishments. Most of these packaging solutions are only used once: they represent tons of waste that needs to be managed, and they have an undeniable environmental impact. Reusable refrigerated packaging solutions are proving to be a solution for the future for minimizing the environmental impact of transporting cold chain healthcare products, and reducing costs. What does this really mean?

pharmaceutical insulated packaging solutions, storing single-use insulated containers

Storing single-use pharmaceutical insulated packaging solutions

Moving towards simple, economic and sustainable insulated shipping packaging solutions

On the quest for greater simplicity to facilitate their logistics of refrigerated transport, pharmaceutical companies are looking for high-performance insulated packaging solutions that are simple to use and capable of responding to complex profiles

Mono-configuration packaging solutions with phase-change materials, use of technical insulating materials such as vacuum insulating panels (VIP) alone or combined with traditional insulating materials, manufacturer’s are developing packaging solutions that are increasingly technical and so increasingly expensive to meet growing market demand. Added to this are budgetary concerns (the notion of TCO – Total Cost of Ownership – largely taken into account when choosing a packaging solution) and environmental concerns for those involved in cold chain logistics which is consequently moving them increasingly towards reusable insulated packaging solutions.

reusable pharmaceutical refrigerated container, durable insulated pallet shipper

                  Semi-active reusable temperature-controlled packaging solution


A lack of regulatory framework to guarantee the efficiency of reusable insulated packaging solutions


Today, the market for transporting pharmaceutical products via the cold chain is seeing more and more reusable insulated packaging solutions appear. Manufacturers are guaranteeing dozens of reuses in complete security. However, there is every reason to have reservations about the performance guarantee of insulated packaging solutions : how can you verify that the efficiency of the packaging solution has not been altered by past use?

“At Sofrigam, we preside over the Sustainable Development Committee for the French Refrigeration Association (AFF - website in French exclusively), we are members of Elipso - plastic packaging association - and a partner of CETHIL, the Center for Energy and Thermal Sciences of Lyon. To date, despite the various environmental studies carried out, we are not convinced that so-called reusable packaging solutions are valid from a financial, security and environmental point of view”, says Laetitia Perche, marketing director at Sofrigam.

As Gilles Labranque, CEO of Sofrigam, explains, the problem encountered by the refrigerated packaging companies regarding the reuse of packaging solutions is that there is no standard defining the conditions of reuse

Temperature-controlled packaging solutions are the guarantor of the integrity of the shipped healthcare products, they should provide complete security. Today, however, there is no standard or regulation which determines the conditions validating the reuse of an insulated packaging solution and its accessories. What are the criteria that establish a packaging solution can be reused and responds to the requirements of cold chain compliance even after a single use? How do you ensure that it responds to the initial qualification conditions? Nothing is regulated and it is a real problem in terms of product security.

What is the financial and environmental impact?


Reuse of an insulated packaging solution
appears at first sight the best way to make an expensive packaging solution profitable. The purchase price is divided by the number of expected shipments that the packaging solution could withstand, which would make the total cost of ownership (TCO) lower than that of a single-use packaging solution.

At first sight only, because everything clearly depends on the logistical circuit.

With regard to the environmental aspect, reutilization of a packaging solution uses less raw materials because of the number of shipments it ensures. In other words, by reusing the packaging solution, we increase its life-cycle and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions linked to the production. Nevertheless, it is necessary to take into account the packaging solution return circuit, which is not the case for disposable packaging solutions. Another question remains unresolved: what criteria should be used to declare the end-of-life of the insulated packaging solution? Who should declare the end-of-life? How should it be managed and who should be responsible for it? 

All these questions show that reuse of packaging solutions, although economically and environmentally attractive at first sight, is a complex issue which has yet to be resolved on several levels: 

  • Defining a standard and regulatory framework in order to regulate and make the reuse of packaging solutions safe

  • Managing the end-of-life of the insulated packaging solutions

  • Encouraging and supporting those involved in the temperature-controlled logistics of pharmaceutical products to implement an insulated packaging management system in order to ensure reuse under good conditions.

In order to evaluate the benefits of reusable insulated packaging solutions in terms of cost and environmental impact, it is necessary to take into account the different logistical circuits for possible reuse. In the next article we will examine the financial impact of reusable packaging solutions compared with disposable packaging solutions according to 3 types of logistical circuits.

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