Thursday, April 25

Is it possible to recycle medical devices such as insulin pens, inhalers and Covid tests?

Most of the plastic in the medicine cabinet is high-quality, medical-grade, and fiendishly difficult to safely dispose of, let alone recycle.

Standard recycling center sorting equipment is typically unable to handle small items, and including them only prolongs the sorting process, which therefore increases recyclers’ costs without recovering the plastic. Some household medical products, such as needles that have come into contact with bodily fluids, shouldn’t even be relegated to household waste.

Governments and large pharmacy chains offer some guidance. For example, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has a map of safe drug disposal collection containers, while Walgreens and CVS Health have safe drug disposal kiosks in select locations. They also sell special containers for shipping used, discarded needles and medical waste to sites for safe disposal.

But when it comes to recycling plastic devices, from asthma inhalers to insulin and allergy pens, people may find themselves ping ponging without a solution. Some states recommend checking with local pharmacies, which in turn recommend checking with municipal recycling facilities.

“What we really need is an evolving, specialized recycling infrastructure alongside the big five: paper, glass, plastic, metal and cardboard,” said Mitch Ratcliffe, publisher of the Earth911 website. “This conversation is really gaining traction in some particular categories, but not in the medical equipment industry.”

Some designers and companies are exploring more reusable or environmentally safer alternatives.

The inhalers that many people use to treat asthma or other respiratory conditions contain potentially recyclable materials. But even those with drug or propellant residues can be dangerous if incinerated or compacted.

Steel or aluminum containers containing the medication should generally be returned to a pharmacy that accepts medical waste. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America also recommends checking with your local health department because they sometimes have disposal options.

Metered-dose inhalers also use hydrofluorocarbon propellants, which are a potent greenhouse gas. The approximately 144 million metered-dose inhalers Americans used in 2020 released emissions equivalent to six months of driving one million cars. When medically appropriate, inhalers equipped with dry powder or soft mist are considered more environmentally friendly devices.

Insulin pens and autoinjectors for treating allergies typically incorporate multiple types of plastic into their design, and unless you disassemble them, you can’t recycle them without fusing the materials together into a lower-quality product.

To dispose of needles used for allergy applications or for blood glucose monitoring, the Food and Drug Administration recommends using approved disposal containers. As a substitute, you can use the opaque, puncture-proof plastic from an empty detergent or fabric softener bottle. Some people use needle cutters to remove the metal ends of needles before disposing, so they can throw the remaining plastic in the trash can.

Information about local disposal programs can be found on the websites of organizations such as Needy Meds and the Pharmaceutical Product Stewardship Work Group. Private waste disposal companies like Republic Services also offer paid post programs.

Every year, Americans fill billions of prescriptions that often arrive in translucent orange containers made of polypropylene, a recyclable plastic marked with the number 5. But most municipal recycling programs don’t accept them because they are so small that they fall into machinery. Furthermore, the vivid color of the bottles prevents them from being mixed with other plastic to obtain a transparent recycled product.

The international humanitarian aid and disaster relief organization Matthew 25: Ministries is inviting people to donate empty bottles, without identifying information, for reuse.

Since 2020, home diagnostic tests for Covid have become commonplace. The temptation to try to recycle the plastic they contain is strong. But samples used in tests can be a vector of infection, so they must be disposed of.

Some are trying to redesign the tests to be more environmentally friendly. A London-based industrial design firm has proposed a biodegradable option, and a University of Pennsylvania lab led the development of a test made with an organic compound, bacterial cellulose, but both remain prototypes.

And Cabinet Health, a certified B-Corp company, eliminates single-use plastic by providing medications in refillable glass bottles and refills in compostable bags.

Some companies offer services to collect and recycle certain types of household medical waste that municipal programs do not accept. TerraCycle offers shipping and delivery services for plastic items, including eyewear, such as old glasses and contact lens containers or blister packs, and oral care packaging, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes. The company then selects and recycles the material and collaborates with manufacturers to transform them into new products.​​