Q: After I finish all the medication in the little yellow-orange vial I get from the pharmacy, how should I dispose of it? Are medication containers recyclable, or should I toss them in the trash?
A: When your medication vial is empty, you may be temped to place it with your recyclables. After all, it's plastic, and it probably has a numbered triangular symbol on the bottom, which you've seen on other recyclable products. But the vials may not make it through the sorting process that most cities and towns use. First, ask your local recycling center if they accept these small containers.
"The number you'll see on the bottle is almost guaranteed to be a 5, if it's a translucent, amber color," says David Cornell, technical director of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers. "If so, that's polypropylene. They're recyclable, but the problem is their physical size."
Many local municipalities with curbside pickup programs sort their recyclables with a screening device called a trommel, which has small holes used to remove unwanted debris. Bottles, cans and containers as large as water bottles remain in the trommel for proper recycling, while broken glass, rocks and other items fall through the holes and are sent to the landfill. "Small bottles have a nasty habit of looking like broken glass and scraps to a trommel," Cornell says. "For this reason, recycling pill vials in a curbside program shouldn't be done unless you can find out if your system can handle the small size."
If your municipality can recycle the small containers, don't worry that the pill residue will make them unfit for recycling since there's a thorough washing and heating process that will remove any traces of the drugs. If your municipality can't recycle the vials, ask your pharmacy if it has a recycling program. Beaver Health Mart Pharmacy in Beaver, Penn. has offered a recycling program for customers' empty vials for the last five years. "We throw them into a shredding bin, and we have a vendor that shreds and recycles the plastic," says owner and pharmacist Tim Davis, Pharm.D.
Lee's Inlet Apothecary and Gifts in Murrells Inlet, S.C., started a similar program this year. Customers hand their empty containers to pharmacists, who black out their identifying information before sending them to a local recycling facility.
Other pharmacies that have the capability to implement their own recycling programs, may not do it because they're concerned about patient privacy laws, says owner and pharmacist Willie Lee, R.Ph. He suggests consumers encourage larger pharmacies to offer similar plastic recycling programs. "That's where it can happen in a huge way," he says. "Once one chain does it, they'll all do it, and there will be a huge amount of plastic being kept out of the landfills."
Before you recycle your prescription container, make sure that it's empty. Then deface or remove the label with your name on it before parting with it. If your recycling center can't process the vials and your pharmacy doesn't have a take-back program, place empty containers in the garbage.
How to dispose of unused medication [U.S. Food and Drug Administration]