Medicines and the Environment (IW)

Wasted or unused medicine is a serious and growing problem within the NHS that you can help tackle. 

It is estimated that as much as £300million is wasted every year on unused or partially used medication which cannot be recycled or re-used. A campaign called Only Order What You Need, working with the NHS, asks people to think carefully before ordering repeat prescriptions.

£300 million could pay for:

  • 80,906 MORE hip replacements*
  • 101,351 MORE knee replacements*
  • 19,799 MORE drug treatment courses for breast cancer*
  • 11,778 MORE community nurses*
  • 300,000 MORE drug treatment courses for Alzheimer's*

*Based on average costs

In addition to only ordering what medication is actually required, we can all act responsibly with our used medication packaging and ensure as much material can be sent for recycling and diverted away from landfill where possible.  This page offers guidance on how to deal with various used items of medication.

General Medicines

How to dispose of unwanted medicines

  • Return them to a pharmacy for safe disposal.
  • Do not flush medicines down the toilet.
  • Tablet blister packs require specialist recycling and are not currently recyclable via your household recycling. Limited recycling schemes exist and participating Pharmacies can be located via searching on this interactive map. Where a local recycling Pharmacy isn't available, these items should be placed in the general waste bin only when empty.  
  • The cardboard box that houses the blister packs can be recycled, as can any paper inserts.

Inhalers

All used inhalers should be returned to a pharmacy to be disposed of safely.

They can be disposed of by the pharmacist with other drugs waste, this is then thermally treated to destroy the greenhouse gases. This environmentally safe disposal route is available at all pharmacies and is paid for by NHS England.

Why...?

There are two main types of inhaler, those using pressurised canisters, known as Metered Dose Inhalers or pMDI, and powder inhalers, known as Dry Powder Inhalers or DPI. The propellants used in pressurised canister inhalers are powerful greenhouse gases. Even after the inhaler is spent significant amounts of these environmentally damaging gases remain in the canister. While these gases can be extracted cleaned and reused in industrial equipment, such as air conditioning systems, they are being phased out of use in most applications because of their environmental impacts. 

The only environmentally safe way to dispose of them is through thermal treatment, such as incineration. Steel and aluminium may be recovered and recycled at some incinerators.

  • Approximately 73 million inhalers are used in the UK every year
  • Landfill disposal of inhalers is harmful to the environment both in material waste and in greenhouse gas emissions as the residual gas from canisters is released to the atmosphere.
  • If every inhaler-user in the UK returned all their inhalers for one year, this could save 512,330 tonnes of CO2eq - the same as a VW Golf car being driven around the world 88,606 times