Medicines packet recycling scheme scaled back following ‘high uptake’

Independent pharmacies received millions of empty medicines packets to recycle, but did not have the infrastructure to process them all.
Terracycle recycling label

Independent community pharmacies have been removed from a free medicine packet recycling programme after participating pharmacies became overwhelmed with the number of packets needing to be recycled.

The multiple Superdrug has now taken over as the sponsor of the programme and patients can instead use one of 197 participating Superdrug pharmacies as recycling locations for medicine blister packets.

The scheme, run by TerraCycle — which specialises in recycling hard-to-recycle materials — was launched initially in September 2020 to enable households to recycle their used medicine blister packets from any manufacturer through a network of independent pharmacies.

At the beginning of January 2021, all Superdrug pharmacies were added to the programme.

Medicine blister packets are a mix of materials that are difficult to recycle and not yet recycled by council systems.

The TerraCycle scheme allows the packets to be collected and separated by polymer type before being extruded into plastic pellets to make new recycled products.

According to a spokesperson for TerraCycle, there was an “an encouragingly high uptake” for the scheme. However, the resources set up at the beginning of the project were unable to accommodate the large quantities of blister packets being received.

As a result, the company had to review and redesign the infrastructure and funding of the programme to ensure it was suited to recycling such large volumes.

As a result, in May 2021, all participating independent pharmacies were removed from the programme owing to “significant challenges to keep the collection viable”, the spokesperson explained.

Superdrug has since been confirmed as the new sponsor of the programme, which was previously sponsored by pharmaceutical company Sanofi. However, the spokesperson for TerraCycle said it is “open for partnerships” with further parties interested in funding free blister packaging recycling to enable further collection points to become available.

When the scheme was scaled down in May 2021, a petition was set up calling on major pharmaceutical manufacturing firms to support TerraCycle in its recycling of all medicine packets. As of 8 July 2021, it had received 21,837 signatures.

Commenting on the scheme, Tracy Lyons, pharmacy sustainability lead at University Hospitals Dorset, said: “It was a really exciting scheme as so many patients (and health staff) were horrified at the waste going straight into the bin.

“It was also brilliant because a lot of sustainability work at the moment is high level, but this was a visible and tangible project that everyone could get involved in and generated lots of positive chat.”

Elen Jones, director of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) in Wales, explained that the composition and safety requirements of blister packs created difficulties in recycling them.

“The TerraCycle scheme did, for the first time, provide an easy and accessible way for the public to recycle used medicine blister packaging at their local community pharmacy,” she added.

“The RPS wholeheartedly supports the calls on the pharmaceutical industry to join together to help secure a sustainable long-term future for the TerraCycle scheme.

“We also urge the industry to proactively work with the health service and patients to reduce the carbon footprint of the wider medicines process.”

  • The standfirst of this article was corrected on 9 July 2021 to state that millions of packets, not billions, had been received by the recycling scheme

READ MORE: PJ view: Everyone must do more on the climate emergency — and that includes us

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, July 2021, Vol 307, No 7951;307(7951)::DOI:10.1211/PJ.2021.1.95210

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