Why throwing your unused meds in the bin is a bad idea
Where should you dispose of your unused drugs and medicines? Photograph: Getty Images
The lack of a national scheme for household medicines means unused drugs are either flushed down the toilet or, worse still, thrown in the bin, writes JOHN HOLDEN
Do you have a press full of half- empty cough bottles, unfinished antibiotic courses and out-of-date painkillers? If the answer is yes, join the club. Some people keep these drugs in a mistaken fear that they may one day come in handy again (if there’s a nuclear war, perhaps). Others keep them because they simply don’t know what to do with them. As the unwanted guest at the waste party, household medicines aren’t welcome in the black, green or brown bins.
The ideal scenario is for householders to return unused drugs to the pharmacist from which they bought them. The waste would then be collected by the HSE or other State body and sent to an incinerator.
While this happens in some parts of Ireland at certain times of the year, it is by no means a blanket national strategy. “It is not mandatory for pharmacists to accept patients’ unused medicines for disposal,” says Jim Curran of the Irish Pharmacies Union. “Nevertheless, a significant number of pharmacies offer this service to their patients. It is up to individual pharmacies as to what policy they have.
“There is a significant cost involved in the disposal of medicines and, in most areas of the country, this cost is borne by the pharmacist. A small number of HSE areas cover the cost of disposal of medicines through pharmacies,” he adds. “The former South West Area Health Board and East Coast Area Health Board in Dublin and the HSE Midlands region have an all-year-round Disposal of Unused Medicines Properly [Dump] scheme. The HSE Mid-West and HSE South regions provide a Dump service once a year for a few weeks. Pharmacies in all other parts of the country must finance the service themselves.”
Bearing the cost
If the cost is usually borne by the pharmacist, it’s understandable they’re not all shouting from the rooftops for people to return their unused medicines. Aside from anything else, they may not have the facilities onsite to store such waste. But that’s only one aspect to it. Public awareness, or lack thereof, is also a major problem.
Earlier this year PhD student Cecilia Fenech from the DCU School of Biotechnology conducted an online survey of 400 people in Ireland and the UK to try to gauge the public’s understanding of what they should do with potentially hazardous household medicines.
Some 79 per cent of respondents surveyed claimed they had never been advised on how to dispose of pharmaceuticals. Some 9 per cent said they always took their unwanted/expired pharmaceuticals back to the pharmacy while 60 per cent of respondents said they were unaware that it was possible to take unwanted/expired pharmaceuticals back to the pharmacy
“It seems the biggest problem is a lack of awareness among the public,” says Dr Anne Morrissey, secretary of the Irish Centre Council for the Chartered Institute of Waste Management. “It’s probably worse putting pharmaceuticals in the bin than flushing them down the toilet. They could potentially leach out into the groundwater eventually from an unmanaged landfill. All research suggests you should flush them down the toilet over binning them but the best option is to return them to the pharmacy.”
Lack of strategy
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) highlighted the lack of a clear strategy towards responsible household medical waste disposal in its 2008-2012 Hazardous Waste Management Plan. Its solution is a Producer Responsibility Scheme (PRI), not unlike those already in place for waste electronics and end-of-life vehicles.
“Under a PRI scheme, importers and producers would be responsible for putting in place collection schemes for medicines,” explains Dr Jonathan Derham of the EPA. “The Government is currently reviewing the situation. Under our proposed scheme, the ‘take back to your pharmacy’ approach would become formalised and all suppliers and distributors would arrange with retailers to collect unused medicines and bear the cost of disposal themselves.”
Until that formalisation, if the pharmacists are unwilling to accept unused medicines, you must go to a designated waste facility and incur the cost yourself of disposal. If you do not have a designated waste centre nearby, the local authorities are your next port of call.
For more information on the safe disposal of household hazardous waste, go to greenhome.ie