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The Prescription Paper Pill Bottle Takes Aim at the Plastic Waste in Your Medicine Cabinet

by Rudy Sanchez on 05/27/2021 | 5 Minute Read

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Last year, more than 4 billion prescriptions were filled in the United States, with two-thirds of Americans requiring some form of prescription medication. Often, those medicines come in pill form, and those teensy tablets get packaged into cylindrical-shaped plastic bottles. 

Unfortunately, those bottles and their child-proof caps are more often than not unrecyclable. Unlike bulk grains, soap, or cappuccinos, one can’t simply bring back the same bottle to the pharmacist to refill for safety and hygienic reasons. Moreover, as a product, patients concerned with the environment can’t easily decide to forego life-saving medicine to reduce their contribution to the world’s plastic pollution.

It’s also critical that those amber bottles protect the pills inside, as the consumer relies on them for health reasons, and many medications are expensive and in limited supply. Many bottles reside inside bathrooms, where glass isn’t an option and conditions are often humid. With so many prescriptions getting filled, the cost of packaging is a concern, of course. And did we even mention child-resistance standards?

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Given the unique specifications for prescription bottles, plastic has endured as the go-to material. It’s strong enough, lightweight, and can get molded to meet child-resistant requirements, in addition to being air and watertight, at a low cost. It may seem that plastic pill bottles have no sustainable alternative. But like so many innovations, inspiration from real-life would set studio Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness on a two-year path towards creating the Prescription Paper Pill Bottle, the 2021 Dieline Plastic-Free Award winner.

“I woke up early one morning, and I take some medication every day," recalls Scott Carlton, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. "I had not had coffee, so I knocked a whole row of empty amber plastic bottles all over the floor. Because I didn't have my coffee yet, I couldn't deal with that. So I just left them on the floor and got my coffee.”

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The studio was working on a few projects at the time, and he saw that Carlsberg had just come out with a paper beer bottle, and he thought about all of his pill bottles falling to the floor. “At the time, I thought, well, those bottles that just fell on the floor are plastic," says Carlton. "I wonder if they've ever created a prescription paper pill bottle. I searched it out and pretty quickly couldn't find anything. I just put the idea down immediately and then brought it to work and asked people what they thought of it.”

In addition to being made of paper, the paper pill bottle would also have to protect its contents, meet regulatory requirements, and be compostable. The bottle folds together, negating the need for glue, and does not require toxic inks or dyes. In partnership with Tikkun Olam Makers, a global movement of makers and innovators, the final design is available freely and open-sourced, so any pharmacy or manufacturer can use it.

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To meet child-proof requirements without needing a mechanism made of plastic—and keeping the entire bottle compostable and biodegradable—small hooks get incorporated into the design that locks the cap in place and prevents children from opening it. Shockingly, it’s also water-resistant, with the same natural beeswax Brooklyn hipsters use to sculpt and shape their beards. A time-honored sealant, beeswax does not alter the biodegradability or compostability of the bottle.

Designing a replacement for the conventional plastic pill bottle initially lead Saatchi & Saatchi to recreate the cylindrical form with fiber. Ultimately, however, the team came to realize there’s no critical reason for pills to come in a cylinder, leading them to a more practical and effective final result. “We went through a bunch of different designs trying to figure out what the right one that would actually work would be," says Jeremy Scharlack, designer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. "We tried to do a molded paper, which is kind of like an egg carton, but it just didn't form correctly.” 

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“We were going to use paper pulp, and we experimented with that a few times, but it came out as a blob,” Carlton added. “You couldn't get hard lines with the design. And it was a big glob that kind of set, but it wasn't uniform enough. And it was a big laughing point because it was such an enormous failure.”

“There was some learning around the actual shape of the bottle, we tried to make it almost as close to the cylindrical plastic prescription pill bottle as we could, and that really wasn't as easy to do as what we ended up with, which is a more hard-edge, square bottle,” adds Kathy Delaney, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. “But we still tried to keep the proportions the same as what people were used to because we didn't want the bottle to be compromised in any way— even from a how-it-feels-in-your-hand perspective. And the shape is one you're used to putting into your cabinet.”

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Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness’ paper pill bottle fills a need for a sustainable alternative to plastic bottles commonly used in the US. However, medicine gets packaged and dispensed differently in other parts of the world, such as the UK and Europe, where pharmacists distribute medication boxed and set in blister packs. The team still sees an opportunity to make pill packaging sustainable, as well other pill-like products, like mints or even cannabis.

“Let's do the first paper prescription blister pack and figure out how to do that," says Delaney. "People are bringing up things like tic-tacs and stuff like that. But I think the next natural thing that’s much closer [in adoption] would be cannabis. I think that audience is ready.”

Reaction to the Prescription Paper Pill Bottle has been overwhelmingly positive, as it provides a solution to a single-use plastic package that until now has had few alternatives. It marvels and benefits from its simplicity, sustainability, and accessibility, thanks to its open-source license. 

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“As somebody who takes medication on a regular schedule, the plastic waste created by medication can be so frustrating and overwhelming. This is an inventive solution that brings sustainable, paper-based pill bottles to the forefront. With an open-source model, I can’t wait to see this replace prescription pill bottles the world over,” said Andrew Gibbs, Dieline, founder and partner.

“Imagine a world where we no longer had the dichotomy of healthcare contributing to the vast plastic crisis. This new innovation, using paper in such a clever way, is set to make that dream possible," says Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet said. “Billions and billions of indestructible forever plastic pill bottles are no longer necessary. The child-safety closure is genius." 

"We hope this simplicity and pure creativity of this packaging concept sets a high bar that many will now reach for.”