Medicines and the environment

Medicines can ease symptoms and relieve conditions, but can harm the environment if not managed properly.

Medicines can affect the environment in many ways.

  • If they are not disposed of correctly, they can pollute the environment – especially our waterways.
  • If not recycled, medicine packaging such as cardboard, plastic or glass can also pollute the environment.

Here are some ways you can protect the environment.

Return expired or unused medicines to your pharmacy

If you have unwanted medicines (including medicines for pets), the safest way to dispose of them is to return them to your pharmacy. This is a free service.

Our wastewater systems are not designed to cope with medicine waste. If medicines get into waterways or the soil, they can harm animals. Some medicines can change the reproduction of aquatic creatures, change their physiology or change their behaviour.

  • Do not flush medicines down the toilet or put them down the sink.
  • Do not put medicines in your general waste or your recycling bin or compost bin.
  • Do not put empty glass containers in the glass recycling unless they have been rinsed thoroughly.
  • Do not give them to other people.

Any medicine that is returned to a community pharmacy is not reused for anyone else. This is because the quality, safety and efficacy of the medicine cannot be checked.

Disposing of needles

  • Needles and syringes must be disposed of safely.
  • Your pharmacy can give you a sharps disposal bin for syringe disposal.
  • A plastic syringe (without needle) can be put into the rubbish bin.

Recycling your medicines containers

Some containers can be recycled. Remember to remove the label which has your patient details on it before disposing.

Cardboard containers

  • Cardboard containers can be added to your paper recycle.
  • Only certain types of cardboard are good for composting and worm bins. Cardboard that is highly processed, bleached white, coated, shiny, or saturated with coloured ink does not make good compost and the chemicals can be toxic to the worms. Plastic-like coatings will never break down in a compost or worm bin.
  • Brown cardboard is great for the compost and for worm farms especially if it’s shredded, torn or cut up with scissors.

Plastic or glass bottles

Empty, clean, and unbroken bottles can be recycled.

Medicine strips or sachet packets

They are not suitable for recycling. Put these items in your regular bin.

Blister packs

There are many different types of blister packs, and only some of them can be recycled. Speak to your pharmacist to check if your blister pack can be recycled.

COVID rapid antigen tests

Tests are not categorised as medicines in Aotearoa New Zealand but we have included information on disposal due to their wide use.

The contents of the test including the swab should be placed in a bag for disposal with household rubbish. Tie the bag tightly.

The cardboard box that is supplied with the test can be recycled.

Collecting or reordering your medicines

To reduce your carbon footprint whilst also getting some exercise, try walking, cycling, running, or using public transport to get to your pharmacy or doctor's surgery. If there is no safe and secure bike parking, let the health service know or contact your council.

If you need to reorder your medicine, check if your GP surgery or pharmacy has a patient portal service, or video or telephone consultant option.

Only order what you need

  • Before ordering more medicine, take a look in your medicine cabinet to see what you actually need.
  • Let your GP or pharmacist know if you’ve stopped taking any of your medicines.
  • If you are collecting your medicines but are not using them, tell your GP or Pharmacist. They can answer any questions or concerns you have. It's important to take the right treatment for your condition.
  • If you don’t need the medicine, don’t order it. If you need the medicine in the future, you can still request it.
  • If you need to go into hospital, remember to take all your medicines with you in a clearly marked bag.

Inhalers and the environment

Inhalers are used for a variety of breathing conditions, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Some inhalers use propellants to create a spray of medication droplets which the person inhales. These are called pressurised metred dose inhalers (pMDIs) and they cause more emissions than other inhalers. 

If you are concerned about the impact of your inhaler on the environment, speak to your GP. They can see if there are any lower-carbon alternatives that can control your symptoms.

Do not stop using your inhaler without talking to your GP first. 

Using antibiotics appropriately

If you are taking antibiotics for an infection always complete the course, even if your symptoms have disappeared. This is to make sure your infection is fully treated.

Only take antibiotics prescribed for you. Do not share or use leftover antibiotics as antibiotics treat specific infections and taking the wrong medicine can make things worse.

Using antibiotics when they’re not needed drives bacteria to become more resistant. Bacteria can change (or mutate) so that antibiotics no longer work to treat infections, this is called antibiotic resistance. Preventing infections and their spread helps stop antibiotic resistance by reducing the need for antibiotics. Key things you can do are to regularly wash your hands and keep up to date with vaccinations. Read more about how to prevent antibiotic resistance.

Learn more

The following links have more information about medicines and the environment.

References 

Credits: Health Navigator Pharmacists. Reviewed By: Sandra Ponen, BPharm, MPH, Auckland Last reviewed: 13 Apr 2022