Carbon emissions through transport, heating, lighting and procurement of medicines and other goods, with transport alone within the health sector estimated to emit 3.4 million tonnes of CO2 each year (18 per cent of all healthcare emissions).
As a result, the healthcare sector is under increasing pressure to deliver services in more environmentally sustainable ways and has responded with a range of initiatives, such as the Greener NHS project setting the NHS the challenge of becoming the world’s first completely net carbon zero health service by 2045.
With climate change continuing to dominate the ‘green’ agenda, savvy shoppers are also looking to put their money where their morals are when it comes to reducing their consumer impact on the planet – including asking for more sustainable healthcare products and services and encouraging pharmacies to add in-store recycling schemes to their offering.
“We can all do our part, making small changes to benefit the environment, and recycling beauty products is a great place to start,” says Nick Drewe, founder of online discounts and coupon platform wethrift.com.
Dismantle the product and separate each material out. Once this is done, thoroughly wash out any residue and leave to dry. If the material is paper, cardboard or glass, it can be recycled in most household recycling bins.
Pumps and some bottle caps can’t be recycled, so make sure they are removed and binned before recycling. Product labels should be removed as they cannot be recycled either. Makeup brushes, palettes that contain mirrors or magnets, and mascara brushes are also in the ‘non-recyclable’ category. Although usually made of glass, nail varnish bottles cannot be recycled due to toxins used in the product formulas.
Leftover tubs and jars can be used as storage or as containers when making homemade face masks, etc. Spray bottles can be used to mist and water houseplants.
Even if your own pharmacy doesn’t have them, some high street retailers have recycling schemes to prompt customers to become more environmentally friendly. Schemes such as TerraCycle have made recycling simple by providing a local drop off point for all kinds of empty products and packaging.
As well as adopting recycling practices, in recent years consumers have become more comfortable buying products they perceive to be natural or more sustainable – from items made with non-plastic packaging and materials, to bamboo toothbrushes and environmentally conscious sanitary wear.
Even if some of these come with a higher price point, with more retailers stocking them, they are becoming increasingly accessible to consumers – something that pharmacy can capitalise on.
Reusable sanitary items are one such product line, with the overarching aim of reducing waste by replacing plastic-containing disposable period wear with sustainable alternatives. According to reusable period wear brand Wuka, 200,000 tonnes of disposable pads and tampons are sent to landfill every single year in the UK, yet just one pair of fully leak-proof period pants can save 200 single-use disposables from going to landfill or polluting our oceans.
Registered by The Vegan Society and approved by PETA, Wuka uses Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) organic cotton, biodegradable and compostable Tencel Modal made from sustainable beech trees, and a product called Econyl made from ocean plastic waste in its period pants. Two of its products – Wuka Stretch and Wuka Flex – are specifically designed in multi-size options to allow retailers to cater to a range of customers without needing to carry a huge amount of stock.
Another single-use product that has long been ready for a more sustainable design is the humble pregnancy test. When Lara Solomon discovered some 12.5 million home pregnancy tests are completed in the UK each year, she decided to address this with the launch of the Hoopsy eco pregnancy test, made from 99 per cent paper, in 2022.
Registered with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and available to be stocked in pharmacies, the tests have an hCG sensitivity of 25mIU/ml and are over 99 per cent accurate from the day of the expected period. Once used, the paper test can be cut in half, with the urine sample section going in the bin and the other half in paper recycling. Its cardboard packaging can be recycled in paper recycling and the pouch the test comes in can be recycled with soft plastics at many supermarkets.
With figures from the charity Asthma UK showing that 5.4 million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma – 1.1 million children (one in 11) and 4.3 million adults (one in 12) – it is clear that a lot of inhalers are being used and discarded every year.
Since inhalers cannot be recycled or disposed of with household waste, pharmacy teams should encourage patients to return their used inhalers to the pharmacy to be incinerated with medical waste. Landfill disposal is harmful to the environment, in terms of both material waste and greenhouse gas emissions from residual gas from used canisters being released into the atmosphere.
Four important policies
In October 2021, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) published its four policies on sustainability, which encompass improving prescribing and medicines use, tackling medicines waste, preventing ill health, and refining infrastructure and ways of working.
Since then, the RPS says its main priority has been to highlight the links between climate change and medicines/wider pharmacy practice. It has also published a “Climate Change Charter”, which asks all members of the pharmacy team to commit to:
- Understanding how human health and the systems which underpin it are reliant on the state of our natural environment
- Actively exploring ways to make pharmacy practice and medicines use more sustainable
- Collaborating and sharing best practice to improve sustainability in pharmacy and healthcare
- Demonstrating leadership on sustainability or being a champion for sustainability at work
- Assisting patients to optimise their medicines use to increase both health outcomes and environmental sustainability.
The RPS also asks individuals to commit to a personal action on climate change of their own choosing. For more information, go to: rpharms.com and search ‘climate change charter actions’.
Pharmacy teams are also in a prime position to advise customers about the importance of minimising medicines waste.
“It’s estimated that around £300 million worth of medications are wasted each year in the NHS,” says Dr Honey Smith, GP and co-chair of Greener Practice, the UK’s primary care sustainability network. “That would pay for 31,000 NHS hip operations or around 9,000 nurses employed at a hospital for that same year. And that wasted medication also has a huge cost to the planet, equating to about 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted unnecessarily from the manufacture of those medicines alone, not to mention the carbon cost of disposal.”
So, what can pharmacy staff advise their customers to do to help change this? “Firstly, remind patients to only order the medication they need each month,” says Dr Smith, “and check their medication before they leave the pharmacy so that it can be returned and used for someone else if they don’t need it. Secondly, if someone is being prescribed medications that they are not taking, suggest that they talk to their GP about whether these are still the right doses and treatments for them.
“Thirdly, if people have medication at home that they are never going to use, you can ask them to return it to the pharmacy for safe disposal. Wasted medication put in bins or flushed down toilets will get into our soil and pollute our waterways, causing danger to wildlife and fish, and through getting into our food chain, causing risk to us too – for example, by stopping antibiotics working. Packaging or products containing medication residues – for example, medicine bottles of painkillers or antibiotics, contraceptive and HRT patches and gel containers, etc – also need to be returned to the pharmacy for safe disposal, as residues of hormones in the water are bad for fish health and may get into our food chain, and medications such as some commonly used painkillers are toxic to some birds.”
Finally, Dr Smith says there might be alternatives or changes to medication that the patient could talk to their doctor about. “Physical activity, for example, does far more good overall than many medications that can be prescribed, dramatically reducing the risk of a huge number of conditions, and usually without side effects,” she says. “Exercise in nature is even better for us, boosting our immune systems, improving our mental health and connecting us with the natural world so that we might care for it better.”
Alongside these top tips and swaps, pharmacy staff can play a role in minimising waste. For example, the Greener NHS National Programme recommends:
- Reduce: turn off equipment, put lights out and close doors to reduce energy consumption
- Reuse: avoid using single-use items. Bring your own reusable cups, bottles and cutlery
- Recycle: be aware of proper healthcare waste management practices; use the appropriate bin for paper, plastic and food waste
- Replace: walk, cycle or use public transport when possible.
As with so many seemingly huge initiatives needing global attention, we all have a part to play, and every small step we can take is worth it as it all adds up to a bigger collective benefit.
Pharmacy recycling schemes
TerraCycle offers a range of recycling programmes and solutions for almost every form of waste – including batteries and e-waste, product packaging, organic and medical waste.
The recycling solution most geared towards community pharmacies is TerraCycle’s paid-for Zero Waste Boxes, which can help to recycle hard-to-recycle waste. The price of the box covers the box itself and return shipping once it is full.
Pharmacy staff can also encourage customers to look at the range of TerraCycle schemes that let people recycle some products from home.
Users collect TerraCycle points on every parcel, which can be redeemed in the form of a donation to a school or charity of their choice. TerraCycle says the scheme so far has raised more than £33 million globally for schools and charities. Pharmacies can sign up at: zerowasteboxes.terracycle.co.uk.
Novo Nordisk’s PenCycle injector pen recycling scheme allows patients to return Novo Nordisk’s pre-filled FlexPen and FlexTouch pens, which are used for diabetes and obesity management. Patients can collect a free PenCycle box from participating pharmacies or apply for them online at: pen-cycle.co.uk. After removing their injector needles and disposing of them in the normal way, patients can either bring the full pen box back to the pharmacy or drop the pre-paid box in the post.
Every pen is sent back to Novo Nordisk’s specialist facility in Denmark, where up to 85 per cent of the materials are recycled into useful items including furniture and glassware. The process uses Novo Nordisk’s existing logistics routes to minimise environmental impact, with every shipment tracked and recorded to make sure none ends up in landfill or is incinerated.
Launched in November 2021, the scheme now involves 2,800 community pharmacies in the UK, with around 30,000 pens having been recycled so far. Pharmacies can sign up at: pen-cycle.co.uk or contact Alliance Healthcare for more information.
The Automedi 3D printing service is an award-winning, ‘circular plastic economy’ that packages the recycling and manufacturing of products into a waste collection subscription. Using 3D printing machines with the footprint of a mini desktop fridge, plastic waste from, for example, medicine pots, inhaler mouthpieces, pill trays and facemasks is turned into useful healthcare accessories and products such as pill splitters, tweezers, coat-hooks, clips, pegs, sign-holders, test-tube holders and rack adaptors.
“Running since 2020 in Trafford and Stockport, south Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne and parts of Leeds, Automedi cluster hubs across the UK have saved 7.7 tonnes of CO2 and diverted a tonne of plastics from landfill,” says founder and managing director Ethar Alali. Find out more by emailing: email@example.com.