Thinking Outside the Box for a Healthier Planet
By Lisa Moher, Head of North America Supply Chain, Distribution, Packaging, Engineering and Graphics
Growing up as a child, I dreamed of being a pediatrician. However, 2.5 years into college, I realized that I would not achieve that dream. I quickly learned that pediatrics was more than diagnosing colds and ear infections. Working with grievously sick children was something my heart could not bear. After much thought and discussion with friends, I decided to pursue a degree in Packaging Science.
In 2002, I interned with Aventis (now Sanofi), where I was responsible for the design and qualification of the coolers used to deliver our products, mainly to pediatricians. It was as if fate had intervened and I would fulfill my initial dream, to an extent, by having some sort of connection to pediatrics. At Sanofi, I went from intern, to contractor, to employee--and it was, and is, one of the best decisions I have ever made. It's now nineteen years later and I have never looked back.
My role expanded over the years and I am now responsible for packaging for all Sanofi business units flowing through the North America Supply Chain. My motto has been, “If I’m unable to have my children/loved ones at the end of our filling lines, then I am going to ensure that we design and qualify coolers that can maintain temperature and ensure that our products are as efficacious as the day they came off the manufacturing lines.” As we continued to grow the Sanofi business and our patient base, that motto has become a staple for my team and management. However, we needed to take one more step to ensure the safety of our patients and our future.
Sustainability has always been on my mind. For over a decade my team and I have been evaluating various materials to preserve Mother Nature, our future and the future of our children. Ring in 2010 with my newest motto, “We need to think GREEN for our FUTURE.” How could we make our packaging more sustainable? This question began a 9-year quest to find better materials to ship our medicines in and to help keep the planet healthy.
We looked at various materials including corn starch, Rockwool, spun denim and paper, just to name a few. Yes, you can spin denim and volcanic rocks. I know, right? We tested the packaging that came in every meal delivery service. We even had friends gifting us with packaging to test. My kitchen and office became a science lab, dissecting materials to better understand their composition and thermal properties. We were not achieving the duration and thermal performance we needed to transition from our Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or “Styrofoam™” coolers to a sustainable option. While material testing continued, in 2015 we introduced custom recyclable water bottles. These bottles, which are used to encase the products in the cooler to keep them cold, will annually reduce landfill space by 110K tons or the total mass of 28 elephants.
Then, in 2019, we were introduced to a 2" x 2” piece of what appeared to be EPS, however, it was a biobased material made of corn and sugar cane. We were instantly intrigued based on the appearance and feel of the material. It was called XPLA (BIOFFEX™). This is what my team and I had been looking for! It takes 400 years for an EPS cooler to breakdown in a landfill. BIOFFEX™ can be composted and broken down in 2 weeks, or it can be landfilled and broken down in 1 year, leaving zero toxicity and microplastics versus traditional Styrofoam. Annually, we ship ~2 million EPS coolers out of our US Distribution Centers. Bioffex™ will reduce water usage by ~60k gallons, remove 1K cars off the road, and reduce landfill space by 2M+ cubic feet or the height of 2,528 Eiffel Towers stacked end to end annually.
After 2 years of testing, we proudly introduced our first of five containers in Bioffex™, with the remaining four slated for introduction over the next 3 years.
What this journey has taught us is that we, as a team, as a company and as individuals, need to continue to be proactive and think outside the box...literally! The smallest ideas could have far reaching impact. We need to SHAKE the FUTURE, leaving behind a safe and healthy planet for generations to come.