The shocking truth about Wasted Medicines

Filed in Blog, Waste News by on December 31, 2010 20 Comments
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prescribed medicines being wasted and incinerated

prescribed medicines being wasted and incinerated

Many of you on the site have asked about responsible disposal of medication packaging. Lots of medicines come in plastic packaging with a foil laminate and it’s virtually impossible to recycle.

While I’ve been aware of the packaging issue, I’d never stopped to think of the amount of medicines we waste.

According to the Welsh Assembly Government, more than 250 tons of out of date, surplus and redundant medicines are returned each year to pharmacies and dispensing GP surgeries across Wales at an estimated cost of £50 million to the NHS. This is in addition to medicines that are probably disposed of incorrectly through household waste.

They’re setting up a campaign to ensure patients receiving prescription medicines will be handed advice such as ordering the right amounts of medicines and not stockpiling drugs.

The Chief Medical Officer for Wales, Dr Tony Jewell, and the NHS Chief Executive, Paul Williams will also be writing to health professionals to highlight the campaign and remind them of the importance to prescribe only what is necessary to help patients manage their condition to avoid wasted medicines.

Unwanted medicines cannot be reused or recycled and all have to be destroyed in an incinerator. The campaign features the case of one patient who returned £2,000 worth of unwanted medicines.

Health Minister Edwina Hart said: “Millions of pounds worth of waste medicines are being burnt every year. This is money that could be better spent elsewhere in the NHS.”

The Welsh Assembly Government give the following guidelines to patients:

* Always understand what your medicine is for and how to use it correctly: ask your GP or Pharmacist if you are unsure

* Tell your GP or Pharmacist if you have stopped taking a medicine; this will ensure unwanted medicines are not wasted and help health professionals plan the best treatment for you

* Before ordering a repeat prescription, ask yourself whether you actually need it and whether you intend taking it

* Don’t stock pile medicines: they could go out of date or be taken by a child

* Don’t share your medicines with others or take someone else’s medicines

* Take time to understand the side effects, the benefits and the risks of your medication

* On admission to hospital always take your medicines with you

* Return waste medicines to your local pharmacy or Dispensing GP for safe disposal. Do not dispose of unwanted medicines in household waste or down the toilet.

I’d love to know what you think of the story. Were you aware that so many medicines get incinerated every year?

About the Author ()

I am a long time supporter of the Green and Sustainable lifestyle. After being caught in the Boscastle floods in 2004, our family begun a journey to respect and promote the importance of Earth's fragile ecosystem, that focussed on reducing waste. Inspired by the beauty and resourcefulness of this wonderful planet, I have published numerous magazine articles on green issues and the author of four books.

Comments (20)

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  1. Katy says:

    My husband had a bad back, for which the GP prescribed a moderate/strong painkiller. His instructions were to take up to 3 per day with food, for up to a week. He was given a pack of 56 tablets as this was the smallest available at the pharmacy – in the end he only needed to take them for 4 days, so a huge waste. We didn’t get a chance to “order the right amount”, but now it’s my problem to dispose of the excess safely! All I can do is store them safely until their expiry date, and if either of us is prescribed the same drug again in that time, use the stock rather than getting the new prescription.

    I hadn’t thought too much about the packaging issue until now. I guess some medicines do need to be protected from air and moisture to remain effective – otherwise they would be wasted due to being unusable.

  2. Julie Day says:

    I do like it but have to admit have been guilty of throwing medicines down the toilet instead of taking them back to the chemist. As to the foil. I did start trying to take it off and recycle it but have stopped. I now feel that those little bits of foil are like shredded paper and are too small to recycle. What do you think? PS Have just blogged my top recycling tips for the holiday.

  3. Poppy says:

    @Julie Day:

    Unfortunately I have to take several medicines that are dispensed in foil backed blister packs. I do try to remove the foils and I put them into a bigger foil tray (pie tray?) and at some point, it all gets folded and squashed up together.

    Whilst on the subject, does anyone know why paracetamol type meds are packed with paper backs rather than foil?

  4. Julie says:

    I’ve just posted a fairly long reply which was refused as it was too ‘spammy’. Therefore my condensed advice is to go speak to your Pharmacist.

    He can supply any amount of medication,just so long as it isn’t for more than the amount prescribed. For example he could give you half the amount, and an owing slip for the remainder and it’s up to you whether you collect the amount owing or not.

    The only time I doubt a pharmacist would do this is for a controlled drug.

    Speak to your Pharmacist and he can express his concerns and hopefully everyone can come to an amicable agreement.

    Hope that helps.

  5. Jen says:

    I’m ok on pills, but I do have a ridiculously large bottle of medicated cream for a rash that lasted only a few days. I should have asked when I was at the pharmacy exactly how large the bottle would be, and I remember being dismayed that it cost so much! I could have done with 1/10 the amount. I never thought about them being incinerated (will have to do some Canadian research).

    Anyway, it seems like there are many aspects of the health industry (disposable gloves, bandages, pills, sheets, etc) that make being zero waste nearly impossible once you hit the doctor’s office. Last time I had a pap they wanted to use a disposable plastic instrument instead of the regular washable metal one. What’s next?

  6. Hazel says:

    I’ve found that one of the cheapy chemist type shops near us sells aspirin and paracetamol in little plastic tubs, so I try to keep some of those in the cupboard so I don’t have to get the blister packs from the supermarket. They don’t have brufen unfortunately.

    I wish children’s medicine came in smaller amounts that aren’t sachets. I rarely gave mine calpol or whatever, but did need it occasionally and would be left with a big bottle of syrup that would go out of date before I could use it all up.

  7. shocked to read how much is wasted per year–medicine-money-packaging–all a huge waste.
    this is the mindless fraudulent health system which bankrupts many a country.
    the wasteful management of all medical products is corrupted by the marketing which preys upon health concerns and greed.
    incinerated or not, the whole disposal of unused medicines pollutes and abuses resources everywhere.
    well at least we have the herbal industry to rely on for preventive care–until that is affected by new laws under consideration in EU and US. (S.510)

  8. Jane says:

    Glad you’ve looked at this. Last time I took pills back to chemists for destruction they told me they depressingly told me they flushed them down the loo! Unfortunately I was too gobsmacked to comment.

  9. Julie says:

    @ Jane, if that is in the UK then you should change pharmacy and report them to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. There are no excuses for them flushing medication down the toilet. Bins are provided and collections are made to take returned medication away for incineration. No excuses, totally unethical behaviour. If they can’t take your returned medication for whatever reason ( and there isn’t any) then they should at least point you in the direction of a pharmacy that does.

  10. Mrs Green says:

    @Katy: Katy, thank you for sharing your story about this; it’s very hard when you’re not in a position to make a good choice, and as you say, it’s now your responsibility to dispose of the medication. Thanks for sharing ‘the other side’ of the story.
    @Julie Day: I understand what you are saying about the tiny pieces of foil. The secret is to squeeze them into a shape and store them up if you want to continue doing it. Saw the tips on your blog – great stuff!
    @Poppy: Hi Poppy, I didn’t know about the paper backing to paracetamol…
    @Julie: Thanks for the great advise, Julie – I didn’t know you could take half a prescription. I never found your ‘spammy’ post – that usually happens when it contains links, but I always get them to moderate – the internet is a strange place at times …
    @Jen: Such a shame about all that cream. I think you’re right, much of the medical industries stuff has to be disposable…
    @Hazel: Individual sachets are a great example of convenience but as you’ve pointed out they can create waste. Good that you’ve found a solution to paracetamol.
    @nadine sellers: Hi Nadine, the possibility that natural health care products will be ‘banned’ is really concerning; it feels a real loss of freedom. Time to grow more herbs in the garden 😉
    @Jane: That’s outrageous Jane! Are you going to take it up as Julie suggests or was it too long ago?

  11. Antonio Pachowko says:

    If you are taken prescribed pain killers such as paracetamol or aspirin ask the chemist if you could get them in glass bottle , which is

    a) easier to dispense than blister packs

    b) the container is recyclable.

    I admit I did this because to paracetamol tablets are so brittle they easily break and I got fed up of this and told the pharmacist who changed the container. You never know until your talk to the Pharmicist.

    For those with chronic conditions it should not be a problem as every week I do my Mum’s prescription and the size of the blister pack boxes are huge. The major problem is those with acute conditions and coming up with the right dosage. If only we have a crystal ball

  12. David Moed says:

    Sorry – I have not read all the replies – I came to this via my interest in recycling and corks – bottom line is there anywhere to return medicines be checked and reused?
    Happy to have reply from Mrs Green to me direct .

  13. Antonio Pachowko says:

    I forgot to mention that Doctor will dispense the cheapest most generic drug to treat your condition and of course this may not work, and as a result you are left with a lot of ineffect medicine. Doctors are not brave enough to go for more expensive drugs that they know will work. They have to balance the books

  14. Jane says:

    @Mrs Green: It was too long ago. I have found a couple of places that take some medicines back and then send them on. It seems that something is at last happening on this.

  15. Mrs Green says:

    @Antonio Pachowko: Good to hear the pharmacist can sometimes help, Anotonio. Thanks for the advice.
    @David Moed: Hi David, I have a story coming up on this, thanks to one of our readers, I’ll be in touch when it’s on the site.
    @Jane: thanks for all the links Jane; it’s coming up as a great story next week 😉

  16. H0gg1t says:

    To put the Welsh Assembly Gov. remarks in context, as a resident in this Principality, I would like to draw attention to the fact that here in Wales, we do not have to pay for our prescriptions, which may lead tohe Welsh in general being a little more blase about the quantities of new or repeats of prescriptions filled.

    I must admit to also not returning non used medication!

  17. Ben says:

    If my doctor is prescribing painkillers, or anything that I know is fairly well represented in non-prescription products, I do now ask if there’s anything over the counter that would be suitable. Mainly to save some of the £7.20 charge, but also because a packet of an over the counter product is something you can use again for other conditions, and that more than one person can take, so any left over is likely to be used for something.

  18. hollie says:

    to get around the blister packs from the chemist – tell them you NEED childproof containers … i do it with the vast majority of my prescriptions (when needed) and the have to oblige … taking my toddler in also helps

  19. Mrs Green says:

    @H0gg1t: Ahhhh, thank you H0gg1t for sharing that information. You’re right; it does somewhat sway the results.

    @Ben: Good idea Ben – saves money and medication.

    @hollie: thanks Hollie – another great tip and one which I wasn’t aware of.

  20. Jane says:

    Do check your medication that it is what you should be getting and that it has plenty of time before expiry. I found some inhalers had run out and I’d been issued with them with only a couple of months before they went out of date. They were my back up ones and since I didn’t get a cold over Christmas that year I didn’t need them for several months more.

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