Where to dispose of expired or unused medication?
Published 22 Jul 2020 • Updated 6 Aug 2020 • By Alexandre Moreau
A report by the Department of Health estimates that unused medicines cost the NHS around £300 million every year. Medications that have expired or are no longer useful (for example, after stopping treatment) should not be thrown away, but should be taken back to the pharmacy so that they can be disposed of safely.
What medicines and other products can be safely disposed of or recycled?
Not all medicines and health products are eligible for recycling.
Among the products collected free of charge from pharmacies are tablets, capsules or suppositories. Creams, ointments and gels, as well as syrups, vials, aerosols, sprays and inhalers can also be recycled (even if the tube or bottle has already been used). All of these products can be recycled regardless of whether they are expired or not, and whether they have been opened or not.
On the other hand, many products are not covered by this recycling system and are therefore not to be taken back to the pharmacy. This is the case for food supplements, special foods (for adults and infants), medical devices (dressings, condoms, compresses, contact lenses, etc.), chemicals and veterinary products. Cosmetics (shampoos, perfumes, moisturisers and sun creams, make-up, etc.), glasses, prostheses, thermometers and X-rays are also not covered.
Finally, used needles and syringes are classified as infectious waste and need to be disposed of differently. Used needles or sharps should be collected in a designated sharps bin that can be acquired on prescription from a GP or pharmacist. When full, the bin can be collected for disposal by your local council.
How to properly dispose of your medicines?
The first step in recycling medications is to sort through your medicine cabinet and identify expired or unused products that can be returned to the pharmacy. It is advisable to do this every six months to ensure that you keep only those that are in date and still in use, especially if you are on a regular course of prescription medicine.
The second step is to separate the cardboard packaging and paper inserts from the medicines. Even if only one tablet or capsule remains in the blister pack, pharmacies collect it for disposal. However, the blister packs themselves are not recyclable and should be placed in the waste bin when empty. The cardboard box and paper leaflets that come with the medicines should be disposed of at home in the recycling bin.
Finally, the third and last step is to take them to the pharmacy. All pharmacies are obliged to accept back unwanted medicines from patients, so all you need to do is to go to the pharmacy closest to you!
Why safely dispose of your medicines and other health products?
There are many advantages to recycling or safely disposing of our medicines:
- The major advantage of drug recycling is the preservation of household health. Unfortunately, poisonings (particularly in children) and medication mix-ups (especially in the elderly) can be frequent. Sorting through one's medicine cabinet, removing expired medicines and those no longer in use (when treatment is over) helps to avoid these risks.
- The benefits of medicine recycling are also ecological and environmental. Indeed, when mixed with household waste, medications could be buried in a landfill and gradually pollute (with the run-off of rain) the soil, rivers and water tables.
Likewise, medications should not be thrown down the sink or toilet as they could pollute the water supply (especially drinking water), despite the treatment it undergoes in water treatment plants. For example, recycling medicines helps to prevent the presence of antibiotics in tap water that can cause resistance, or hormones that could cause physical changes...
Who participates in the medicine disposal or recycling circuit?
There are 6 main players in the drug recycling circuit:
- Pharmaceutical laboratories: many pharmaceutical companies are involved in product take-back schemes and are taking steps to become more sustainable in their manufacturing and packaging. In some countries like France, pharmaceutical laboratories pay an eco-contribution of 0.19€ per box of medicines sold in pharmacies, which helps fund the medical recycling system.
- Private individuals and consumers: they bring their medicines back to pharmacies after expiry or end of treatment, and place the cardboard packaging and paper leaflets in the selective sorting system.
- Pharmacists: they collect medicines from individuals, while checking that what it returned does not contain products that cannot be recycled (in particular needles and syringes that must be disposed of safely by the local council) and sort them properly.
- Wholesaler-distributors: they store medicines recovered from pharmacies in secure containers and then call transporters when these are full.
- Transporters: they transport the medicines to be recycled between dispensing establishments and waste recycling centres.
- Energy recovery centres: waste medicines are incinerated and energy is produced (in the form of steam and electricity for heating and lighting).
It is important to note that since 2009, any distribution of unused medicines to humanitarian associations has been prohibited. The European Union gives priority to sending new medicines to underprivileged countries, in order to guarantee better product traceability.
Finally, in France in 2016, nearly 11,000 tonnes of unused medicines were recovered by pharmacies. In 2018, 80% of French people reported returning their unused medicines to their pharmacist, and 60% did so on a routine basis. Adopting a responsible approach to disposing of our medicines can be an excellent tool to help preserve your health and that of your loved ones, as well as to protect the environment and maintain water quality.
What this article helpful to you?
Feel free to share your thoughts and questions in the comments!