Where Are Eco-Friendly Blister Pill Packs?
When medicine makes you feel worse: 4.5 billion prescriptions were filled using non-recyclable packaging in the US in 2020. Does Big Pharma think we don't care? Or can they just get away with it?
In a bizarre twist of consumerist fate, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the worst polluters around, contributing 55% more greenhouse gases than the entire automotive industry.
How is that possible? After all, insurance companies — not us — choose which prescriptions a pharmacy will hand to us in a stapled paper bag. The marketing is pointed at doctors, and warning labels are printed out separately. What need is there really for non-recyclable plastic packaging?
From what we can tell, none.
What the Numbers Tell Us
Seriously? Pharmaceutical companies out-pollute the entire automotive industry? It seems like a stretch, but it’s true. Of the 546 million metric tons of CO2e emissions from the US healthcare sector, nearly 15% came from prescription drugs. In England, that number was over 16%.
What a paradox, huh? The more resources we use to bulk up public health services, the more we need those services. Understandably, the pharmaceutical industry doesn’t get much of the spotlight when it comes to which industries do the most polluting. After all, a week’s worth of pills fits into a toiletries bag. How bad could they really be?
Turns out, pretty bad. In 2015 — the year of the Paris Climate Agreement summit — the pharmaceutical industry was responsible for nearly 50 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. Compared to just over 30 million metric tons by automotive, it’s clear that those tiny pills and their packaging come at a huge environmental cost.
Should Pills Come In Plastic?
The standard "pro" argument is that some patients rely on non-recyclable blister packaging to avoid accidental overdose, and that these packages protect the potency of their medicine. But neither of these points are true. Let’s find out why.
First, no link has been found between packaging materials and accidental overdose. What researchers did find was that poor labeling was the culprit. Brand names often overshadow the INN (international nonproprietary name) or even omit it altogether. On top of that, blister packaging made that problem worse since the label gets harder to read as more pills are taken.
Second, many materials can protect the purity of medicine, not just plastic. Baker’s yeast, for example — a volatile culture that easily spoils if contaminated — comes sold in foil and paper packaging. Pickles are brined in glass and metal. Ketchup is sold in single-use seaweed. So yeah, we don’t buy the whole “gotta be plastic” argument.
(Some still say single-use medical instruments are the better choice since stainless steel instruments have to be cleaned with each use. One such study even came from a manufacturer of single-use plastic tools! Ahem...)
Solutions Already Exist
It’s tempting to think there’s no way to tear ourselves out of the single-use plastic mayhem cycle, but the truth is potential sustainable options for packaging medicines have already been rolled out. Gotta make you wonder...
Pill bottles and blister packaging are made of non-recyclable, non-compostable materials — usually petroleum-based. Since compostable plastic is a thing already, this problem should already be solved.
And what about recyclable pill containers? Huhtamaki has already introduced a completely paper-based blister package onto the market (along with a dizzying array of other sustainable package offerings). Some organizations even accept old pill bottles as donations.
Bottom Line: Single-Use Is Out
It’s time to move on from single-use packaging and push for a circular economy. With solar, wind and hydroelectric power shouldering our energy needs, fossil fuel pollution concerns need not be part of the single-use versus reusable discussion.
And since plastic manufacturing itself is a massive polluter, trimming it back ought to cover any emission surpluses from making reusable medical products. So let’s do it already!