Health Packaging (2021)


Ethical and OTC drugs sold in pharmacies: packaging numbers and packaging mix by material and product type. Analysis of the pharmaceutical sector in 2021.

Barbara Iascone
Italian Packaging Institute

Among the few sectors to sustain the impact of the disastrous general economic trend as early as 2020, the pharmaceutical sector still turns out to be among the most profitable in our country: after the -0.2% recorded in 2020, it has in fact rebounded in 2021 by registering +0.9%, basically in line with the trend of manufacturing activity.

Even in the post covid period, the sector turned out to be among the most flourishing in Italian manufacturing: from a production point of view, just think of the spread of tampons and vaccines. From an industrial point of view, the sector is characterized by the presence of medium-to-large sized realities, with the number of employees growing since 2014. According to the latest available data in this regard, the number of people employed in the Italian pharmaceutical industries in 2020 was 67,000, or 1.7% of the workers employed in the entire manufacturing sector.

Another decisive factor in the sector’s prosperity is the strong propensity for investment and innovation, two factors that have enabled it to weather times of crisis.

Industry trends

According to Prometeia’s analysis, the pharmaceutical sector as a whole - OTC and over-the-counter products, including hospital and veterinary drugs - expressed a stable trend in sales at current prices in 2021.

The trend recorded by ISTAT for 2021 production is +0.9%.

According to Federfarma’s analysis, contracted pharmaceutical spending, excluding veterinary drugs, shows a slight decrease in 2021 (-0.3%), which corresponds to an increase of about 2.2% in lower average value prescriptions. Packages dispensed by the National Health System are also down (-4%) compared to the same period last year.

Table 1. Evolutionary trend in the production of packs of drugs for human use in the ETHICS and OTC area. Index numbers calculated with reference to numbers of packagings.
  2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 21/20 var % m.a.
  1,980 2,030 2,050 2,061 2,071 2,081 2,052 2,003 1,965 1,951 1,933 1,916 1,954 2.00% -0.10%
Source: Imballaggio in cifre, Istituto Italiano imballaggio

Packaging figures: quantity and consumption

Packages marketed can be broken down as follows: about 85% should be ascribed to ethical products of classes A, B and C (with reference to the breakdown of the Ministry of Health), about 2% to other ethical products sold without a prescription, and 13% to over-the-counter drugs, which tended to increase.

Our analysis regarding the packaging mix of the Italian drug market examines only the area of ethical and OTC drugs sold in pharmacies, with prescription, thus excluding drugs for hospital use and those for veterinary use.

The area analyzed is estimated to have expressed a market of about 1,954 million packs in 2021, up 2% compared to 2020, with reference to primary packaging only; therefore, cardboard cases, descriptive bugiardine and any accessories used for dispensing the drug are excluded from the estimate.

Reasoning in terms of weight (tons of packaging), the packages produced in Italy in 2021 reached about 68,900 tons, to which, however, cardboard sleeves for secondary packaging must be added. This brings the total to about 108,000 t, which is down 2.9% from 2020.

From the 2021 analysis, 65% of the medicines are found to be in solid form (including granulars, tablets), 30% in liquid form, and 5% in other forms, (creams, gels, foams, trans-dermics, etc.).

Table 2. Packaging mix of pharmaceuticals. % values refer to packaging according to product category.
  2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021
Aluminium packaging 60.8 60.7 60.7 60.5 60.0 60.7 61.1
Blister products 55.8 55.8 55.9 55.8 55.4 56.5 56.8
Flexible and rigid tubes 3.9 3.9 3.8 3.7 3.6 3.3 3.4
Metal spray cans 1.1 1.0 1.0 1.0 1.0 0.9 0.9
Glass packaging (vials, flacons, bottles) 20.2 20.2 20.2 20.5 21.0 20.7 20.4
Plastic packaging 18.8 18.9 18.9 18.8 18.8 18.4 18.3
Flacons, flexible tubes, etc. 12.0 12.0 12.0 12.0 12.1 11.9 11.8
Bubble packs, strips, polylaminate bags, monodose 6.8 6.9 6.9 6.8 6.7 6.5 6.5
Spiral-wound carton 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.2
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
Source: Imballaggio in cifre, Istituto Italiano imballaggio

The primary packaging mix

The materials

Concerning primary type packaging, the surveys conducted by the Italian Packaging Institute with reference to the year 2021 report the following.


With a 61.1% share, it appears to be the most widely used material in packaging: blisters alone account for 56.9% of the entire sector, while flexible tubes are at 2.4%, followed by rigid tubes and spray cans, both at 0.9%.


It is the second most used material, with 20.4%.

Vials for beverage products account for 43.9% of glass packaging, followed by vials for injectable products with 31% and bottles for syrups at 24.7%. Glass vials for ophthalmic products turn out to be around 0.4%, ousted by plastic, now preeminent in the category.


Drugs packaged in plastic bottles, flexible tubes, etc. continued to mark a slow but gradual development; in 2021 they reached 18.3%.


Spiral cardboard containers for granular pharmaceutical products accounted for 0.2% of the market.

Product types

Analyzing the pharmaceutical products area segmented by type, we find liquid products, solid products and cream/gel/foam products, to which different types of packaging obviously correspond.

Liquid products

Liquid drugs for oral use, injectable drugs, and non-drinkable drugs (mostly ophthalmic).

In this area, the breakdown by materials has been constant for a few years now. Liquid oral products are packaged 62% in glass packaging, 35% in plastic bottles, and the remaining 3% are laminated sachets.

Liquid injectable drugs are packaged exclusively in glass, while non-drinkable drugs are divided into 93% in plastic vials, 5% in sachets made of laminated material, and the remaining 2% in glass vials.

Solid products

For granules, tablets, confections, i.e., drugs for oral use, the packaging mix breaks down as follows: 92% in blisters made of ALL/PVC or ALL/ALL; the rest is divided between poly-coupled sachets (4.5%), plastic bottles (2%), rigid aluminum tubes (1%), and glass vials (0.5%).

Creams, ointments, gels or foams

In this case, aluminum tubes account for 66%; plastic tubes account for 24% and laminated sachets for 10%.

Table 3. Packaging mix: values % referred to packs, broken down into pharmaceutical families. Year 2021
Products liquid oral use  
Glass bottles 62
Plastic bottles 35
Laminated pouches 3
Injectable liquid products  
Plastic bottles 93
Laminated pouches 5
Glass vials 2
Solid oral products  
Blisters in ALL/PVC ALL/ALL 92
Laminated pouches 4.5
Plastic bottles 2
Aluminium tubes 1
Glass vials 0.5
Cream/gel/foam products  
Aluminium tubes 66
Plastic tubes 24
Laminated pouches 10
Source: Imballaggio in cifre, Istituto Italiano imballaggio

The secondary, transport and closures packaging mix

Drug packaging also contemplates secondary packaging (cardboard cases) and transport packaging (corrugated cardboard cases, pallets, stretch film, etc.).

All ethical and OTC drugs sold in pharmacies involve the use of cardboard cases, which contain the drug, the “bugiardino” and any accessories suitable for dispensing the drug itself. In this case, it is estimated that, in 2021, the packages stood at around 39,111 tons.

As for primary packaging closures, they are divided between aluminum (59%) and plastic (41%) closures.

According to assessments by the Italian Packaging Institute, total packaging in terms of tons-including primary, secondary, transport packaging, closures and labels-is around 108,000 t.

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Istituto Italiano Imballaggio