Big Interview: Pharma packaging must be smart and sustainable

Since his appointment as managing director of RPG Life Sciences, Yugal Sikri has boosted the EBITDA margin and ROCE expansion plus he has improved operational efficiency by investing in building brands. He reveals the key aspects of Indian pharma packaging with Hyderabad-based Chakravarthi AVPS

03 Sep 2022 | By Chakravarthi AVPS

Sikri is a pharma industry veteran. Other than helming operations at RPG Life Sciences from 1 October 2021, Sikri has handled and overlooked domestic and international business for companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Warner Lambert/ Pfizer, Novartis, Ranbaxy and RPGLS for many years. He is also an independent director on the Board of AIC-NMIMS Incubation Centre.

Chakravarthi AVPS (AVPS): Sorry to put you in a spot right at the outset. But what are the three things which you would like to share with the government in order to drive faster adoption of packaging in India?
Yugal Sikri (YS):
Being a part of the pharma industry, my three messages to the government would be – to encourage packaging innovation in pharma industry for enabling its adoption for information, patient compliance or adherence, prevention of counterfeiting and sustainability features. The second is to provide a reward for innovation and differential pricing policy for products adopting those rewarded innovations. Lastly, to create an ecosystem enabling R&D support measures, incentives and industry-academia partnerships.

AVPS: You think there is an increased level of consumer interest in sustainability and eco-packaging…
It is indeed very heartening that consumers are becoming increasingly cognizant of the imperatives of sustainability and eco-packaging like the need to reduce waste for the good of humanity and life in any form.

AVPS: What does this consumer interest mean to you?
It simply means that there will be a fast adoption of waste reduction measures, use of reusable, recyclable materials, use of eco-friendly materials, reduction in the size of the packaging, and adopting software-based lifecycle-based analysis to assess the environmental impact of packaging material while developing new products.

AVPS: Interesting. Any green packaging model launch or project that has impressed you?
Being a strong proponent of sustainable, environment-friendly, and patient-centric packaging, I am impressed by a number of examples in India and abroad like adopting mono-material design (all PP instead of PE+ PS) in dispenser systems, limiting the size of packaging that reduces the amount of cardboard, PVC and aluminium consumption, increase in the number of boxes transported per pellet and optimised use of transport apart from the vast improvement in collection, recycling, co-processing and reusing plastic waste.

AVPS: You undertook a re-engineering project as one of the measures for green packaging. What is this project?
In my company, we undertook a formulation and packaging re-engineering project for the first time in the past 60 years of its existence, with the goal of having smaller-sized formulations and smaller sustainable packaging.

AVPS: Do you think the packaging industry and the manufacturers are offering the right products, not only in terms of attractive features but also innovations?
I think it is happening in pockets. There is more that must be done. Current need is the joint resolve on the part of the industry and the government in ways I have exemplified earlier.

AVPS: Please throw some light on automation in pharma manufacturing and packaging. How do innovative digital tools contribute to this aspect?
Key drivers of any automation are increasing efficiencies, reducing costs, increasing convenience of operations, and reducing human error. These are true for pharma manufacturing and packaging as well. Additional factors that make pharmaceuticals the right candidate for automation are the necessity of ensuring the integrity of the product throughout manufacturing/ packaging process; strict portion control; protection against heat, moisture and contamination; and a strict adherence to regulatory compliances with respect to both in-process and end product specifications.

AVPS: Do you think that automation ensures least human intervention and that in turn makes all the above possible to a greater degree?
More tangibly, automated manufacturing, packaging, and labelling, help prevent or minimise errors leading to misuse of drugs, product recalls, regulatory ire, valuable time and cost spent on investigations and ensure remedial measures and thereby help in saving the reputation of the company and its brands. Technology tools like use of blockchain to drive supply chain transparency are being increasingly deployed. Track and trace is mandated by many regulators today.

Packaging audit in pharmaceutical companies

Like, the way we have internal audits to audit financial and operational business areas, statutory audits to audit statutory compliances, and medical audits to audit product promotion processes, there is a dire need to have a packaging audit as well.

The purpose of a packaging audit is to audit the packaging of all product SKUs from the standpoint of addressing how well each product SKU pack is performing with respect to the various functions it needs to fulfil.
Delivery should be with respect to the defined parameters under each of the five following broad functions:

  1. Containment, portion control and protection
  2. Regulatory compliance
  3. Patients centricity
  4. Security
  5. Sustainability

Scoring for each of the parameters under each of these five functions will give an overall weighted score which will serve as a guide for assessing the overall packaging in the company. More importantly, it will give areas to work on to create a roadmap towards a 100% score.

AVPS: Any new tools or technologies in the pharma packaging?
Digital tools which are in various stages of deployment are 3D printing for personalised medicines/ packaging (example: gene therapies), the use of robots to improve consistency of quality and flow by reducing human error, and intelligent labelling to enable multiple packaging processes.

AVPS: How do you view packaging in India?
Packaging is a vibrant industry in India contributing increasingly significantly to India's growing economy. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry growing at 22-25% per annum as per the Packaging Industry Association of India making it the fifth largest sector in the country. It is one of the drivers of consumerism in India.

AVPS: How do you think packaging drives consumerism in India?
We live in an interconnected world today. There is a strong wave of consumerism across the globe. India is no exception. Its unique demographics, growing large population, burgeoning middle class, rising income levels and internet-enabled access to information have provided a boost to consumerism.

AVPS: Experts underplay the functional aspect of packaging. That's its ability to store and protect…
Apart from the functional aspect of packaging for storage and protection from heat, humidity, infestation, and contamination; packaging attracts the consumers, advertises the brand, informs about the brand, secures it from counterfeiting, tracks its mobility and provides brand identity.

AVPS: What is your perception on the Indian packaging industry pharma specific, what are the gaps to be addressed to match global players?
Talking about pharma-specific packaging in the Indian context there are many significant gaps. Some can be attributed to the lack of recognition of packaging as a means to achieve larger goals of patient convenience, and compliance/ adherence. Prices fixed by the government have no consideration of these important benefits that specific packaging solutions with certain costs will bring in (see box item below).

Role of pharma companies today

Packaging-related core areas, which pharma companies have to work on (with support from the government)
● Packaging to ensure patient convenience. Examples: easy-to-open caps for arthritic patients, specific colours to differentiate medicines for elderly patients and child-resistant packaging.
● Packaging to help increase patient compliance. Examples: Integrate all co-prescription drugs into a single strip (if permissible by regulators), calendar pack and packs with visual cues to track medicine consumption and ensure dosage regimen adherence.
● Packaging to reflect branding and aesthetics to ensure no brand switch-over to unknown brands by trade. Design elements (fonts, sizes and graphics) to be consistent with the brand.
● Packaging to guarantee security by way of security printing to ensure non-tampered, original products and prevent counterfeiting.
● Packaging to support the patient by way of smartphone QR codes that provide digitised information on a product and disease.

AVPS: In your opinion, what are the top five prerequisites that a consumer should seek from packaging?
I reinforce the top five prerequisites that consumers should seek from packaging: pleasing aesthetics – to ensure the organoleptic appeal of medicine; convenience of medicine intake – to avoid difficulties taking the pill/formulation from the pack; product and disease information and necessary guidance on how to take the medicine; product integrity – to ensure getting what is prescribed and in the quantity prescribed and not a duplicate or counterfeit; and in-built drug dosage adherence support – to prevent missing the dose.

AVPS: Patient centricity is a mantra touted to be the key for long run success. Please elaborate.
Indeed, patient centricity and sustainability are the two vital areas that need immediate attention of all pharma organisations. Traditionally, packaging in a pharma company has been under the purview of  manufacturing R&D functions. Hence focus has invariably been, and, rightly so, on the delivery of core functional aspects like stability, cost and compatibility with the machines. The function of patient centricity, hence, has not been specifically considered during packaging design.

AVPS: And you feel this must change…
Yes. Since the product has to be eventually consumed by the patient, his/ her needs/ concerns also need to be addressed in the packaging design. Like ease of use; access to information about a product and disease; usage; risks; do’s and don’ts; access to fellow patients and doctors or company persons to clarify his/ her queries, concerns and anxieties; and confidence of the right product and affordability.

AVPS: The other key mantra for a long run success is sustainability…
It has acquired immense significance in view of the scant regard to the environment we have given while pursuing a blistering pace of industrialisation that has led to serious issues of global warming and the threat to the biological ecosystem. Use of sustainable material; deploying reduce, recycle and reuse; and optimisation of packaging material usage are some of the ways to ensure sustainability amongst many more.n

The Big Interview series for WhatPackaging? magazine is conducted by Chakravarthi AVPS who is the managing director of Ecobliss India and the global ambassador of World Packaging Organisation