Can medical devices such as insulin pens, inhalers and Covid tests be recycled?

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

Sorting equipment at standard recycling centers generally cannot handle small items and, if desired, including them only prolongs the sorting process, which then increases recyclers’ costs without recovering the plastic. Some household medical products, such as needles that have been in contact with bodily fluids, should not even be thrown into household trash.

Governments and large pharmacy chains offer some guidance. For example, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has A map of collection boxes for safely disposing of medications.and Walgreens and CVS Health Have safe medication disposal kiosks in select locations. They too sell special containers for sending used and 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 wandering around without finding a solution. Some states recommend checking with local pharmacies, which in turn recommend checking with municipal recycling facilities.

“What we really need is a specialized and evolving recycling infrastructure alongside the big five: paper, glass, plastic, metal and cardboard,” said Mitch Ratcliffe, editor of the Earth911 website. “That conversation is really gaining momentum in some particular categories, but not in medical equipment at all.”

Some designers and companies are exploring alternatives that are more reusable or safer for the environment.

The inhalers that many people use to treat asthma or other respiratory diseases contain potentially recyclable materials. But those with traces of medications or propellants can also be dangerous if incinerated or compacted.

Steel or aluminum cans 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 greener devices.

Insulin pens and allergy auto-injectors often incorporate several types of plastic into their design, and unless you dismantle them, you can’t recycle them without mixing the materials into a lower-quality product.

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

You can find information about local disposal programs on the websites of organizations such as Medications needed and the Pharmaceuticals Management Working Group. Private waste disposal companies, such as Republic Services, also offer programs by mail for a fee.

Each year, Americans fill billions of prescriptions that often come 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 They fall through the machinery. And the bright color of the bottles prevents them from being mixed with other plastics to produce a transparent recycled product.

The International Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief Organization Matthew 25: Ministries invites people to donate empty bottleswithout identifying information, for reuse.

Since 2020, home Covid diagnostic tests have become commonplace. It is tempting to try to recycle the plastic they contain. But the test samples used can be a vector of infection, so they need to be thrown away.

Some are trying to redesign the tests to make them more environmentally friendly. A London-based industrial design company. proposed a biodegradable optionand a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania led the development of a test made from an organic compound, bacterial cellulose – but both remain prototypes.

AND Cabinet HealthA certified B-Corp company, it eliminates single-use plastics 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 mailing services for plastic items, including eyeglasses, such as old glasses and contact lens containers or blister packs, and oral care containers, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes. The company then sorts and recycles the material and works with manufacturers to turn it into new products.​​