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A Vaccine, Gift-Wrapped in Plastic

The same week FDA granted emergency-use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine, which is shipped in expanded polystyrene (EPS) to preserve its safety and efficacy, a state legislative panel was advancing legislation to ban EPS foam packaging material.

Matt Seaholm

December 18, 2020

Matt Seaholm

Captain Houston Mills, the pilot who delivered the first shipment of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, said, “Every package is a person we always say, and in this instance, the lifesaving vaccine can make a difference in someone’s life.”

Traveling the same transportation network as your holiday gifts, a COVID vaccine is finally on its way to people across America. 

None of this would have been possible without innovative solutions to develop, manufacture, and deliver the vaccine, which must be kept at incredibly cold temperatures, posing many packaging challenges. 

To do so, experts turned to a material that is durable, efficient, and able to maintain a –70° C temperature throughout its journey: Expanded polystyrene, often referred to by the trademarked name Styrofoam.

Expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a marvel of modern science. No other material matches its insulating properties. EPS is incredibly lightweight, easy to mold and shape. It’s this unique material ensuring the first COVID vaccines arrive safely and intact at their destinations. 

EPS provides impact-resistant padding to protect glass vials, contains dry ice, and maintains lifesaving medicines at subarctic temperatures for patients at hospitals, long-term care facilities, and, ultimately, for all of us counting on a vaccine to return to normal life. The video from Pfizer embedded here explains the logistics involved in shipping the product.

However, the same week the US Food and Drug Administration was granting emergency-use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccine, a state legislative panel was advancing legislation to ban EPS foam packaging material.

Unfortunately, this is the type of lawmaking we are seeing all too often. An activist organization decides we don’t need a product or material, sometimes without any scientific data to back its decision. It then puts pressure on elected officials to ban it. Compromise and bipartisanship go out the door. You’re either anti-plastic, or you don’t care about the environment.

There is so much middle ground to be found in our efforts to create sustainability, yet we find ourselves having to defend a material that is playing an invaluable role in the delivery of lifesaving medicine today and every day. Engineers in the plastics industry work tirelessly to produce products that best serve the needs of their customers by conserving resources, improving performance, and reducing costs. Expanded polystyrene is a product of this type of work but all too often is a target for bans to score political points.

Do we need to reuse, collect, and recycle more plastic? Absolutely. All sides can agree on that. 

Are material and product bans worth all the harmful unintended consequences? That’s for elected officials to decide. But, hopefully, this year has demonstrated that plastics play a vital role in society. The safe delivery of a vaccine in EPS packaging is just another example.

So, on behalf of the industry that brought you the expanded polystyrene now holding the vaccine we have all been waiting for since 2020 began, a sincere and overwhelming thank you goes out to the people who are producing the “gift wrap” making it possible for millions of doses to be delivered in time for the holidays. And a lump of coal for the lawmakers trying to ban it.


Matt Seaholm is the Vice President of Government Affairs for the Plastics Industry Association.

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