One chemist, 600,000 single-use dispensing bottles

A pharmacy’s campaign to recycle pharmaceutical packaging is failing to take off as experts say reusing medication bottles is challenging because of sterilisation concerns.

Annual New Zealand pharmaceutical waste is around 60 tonnes but one specialist medical waste collection group admits it throws away pharmaceutical packaging waste because of “logistical” concerns about recycling, including the presence of unused medication.

Appalled by the volume of single-use packaging wastage Alexander Pharmacy asked patients to re-use or recycle medicinal packaging, include pill dispensers, after a year’s analysis of its single-use waste.

The Wellington business alone uses about 600,000 single-use dispensing bottles and produces 3692 litres of recyclable waste including paper, hard plastics and soft plastics annually.

Pharmacist Angela Liu said dispensing bottles, glass or plastic, could be reused or recycled by a licensed contractor once patient and medication information has been removed and the bottles washed with soapy water.

“If you’re no longer using medicines or they have expired you should always take them to your community pharmacy for disposal,” she said. “It’s not good to have them lying around the house. Don’t put them in your general waste, or down the toilet, or the sink.”

But just one per cent of its customers had opted to reuse medicinal packaging, or drop them for recycling.

Pharmaceutical Society practice and policy manager Chris Jay said more research was needed before a nationwide message was given to pharmacy patients that plastic dispensing bottles could be reused.

He said cardboard boxes could easily be recycled by a patient once all of their details had been removed from the packaging but recycled plastic containers could have implications for medication.

Otago University associate professor and medicinal waste researcher Rhiannon Braund said the society was right to be cautious about sterilisation but patients refilling bottles was a “great idea”, noting it had become efficient to simply throw them away.

“There is an opportunity to be a little smarter and I’m sure an opportunity to resuse them [dispensing bottles].”

General manager of specialist waste disposal company Interwaste, Derek Richardson, said because disposed pharmaceutical packaging often had medication in them, they couldn’t be recycled, but said there was a growing interest in correct disposal.

About 60 tonnes of waste is collected annually from pharmacies and chemists through district health board programmes. Once they are collected they are heat treated to remove toxic qualities.

Liu said while there was “a lot of interest” from the pharmacy’s customers, there was little action. “We believe health professionals can work together to improve environmental sustainability in the health sector and our community. We want to get the word out there.”

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