Every year Americans fill an estimated 4 billion prescriptions and buy even more over-the-counter medications. Prescriptions are commonly packaged in orange plastic bottles. Over-the-counter medications have a wider variety of bottle types, including clear, opaque and colored plastic.
The problem with recycling prescription medicine bottles is that most curbside programs do not accept them. The tough thing about reusing them is that they should not hold food products, lest leftover medication make its way into food. Add that to the difficulty of disposing of leftover painkillers, antibiotics, sleep medication and antidepressants, and finding a way to deal with medicine bottles in an eco-friendly manner can seem like a lost cause.
But do not give up hope quite yet. It can be fairly easy to recycle non-prescription medicine bottles depending on their composition and the rules at your local recycling company. And, as the issues involved with disposing of old medications become more prominent, new solutions for recycling these products are becoming available.
What are medicine bottles made of?
The orange bottles that hold prescription medication are typically made of polypropylene, also known as PP or by the resin code #5. Polypropylene is the plastic of choice for many food manufacturers and can also be used to make fabric and household products like carpeting and roof membranes. Light can damage medication, which is why the bottles are tinted.
Bottles that hold over-the-counter medication are most commonly made of #1 (polyethylene terephthalate, or PET or PETE), #2 (high-density polyethylene, or HDPE) and #5 plastics. White opaque bottles are typically #1 or #2 plastic, while clear or colored bottles are more likely to be #5 plastic.
Why is it important to recycle medicine bottles — and medicine?
Medicine bottles are made of plastic, which will not biodegrade. Imagine billions of those bottles creating a permanent sea of translucent orange plastic in landfills across the country, and you can imagine why it is important to find another use for them.
Just as important is finding a good way to dispose of the medicine contained in those bottles. The answer is not to flush them down the toilet. Even the best sewage treatment plants will not remove prescription medications from the water before it is discharged into rivers and streams. Drugs can affect fish and other wildlife, and they will eventually make their way back into human consumption.
Hanging onto drugs indefinitely is not a good solution either. Old medications may not work properly after their expiration date, and some in the house may find those drugs awfully tempting. A 2012 survey showed that 24% of teenagers admitted that they had taken prescription medications that were not prescribed to them.
How to recycle medicine bottles
Many curbside recycling programs that accept #1 and #2 plastic will take medicine bottles made with that material. However, some limit #1 and #2 plastic collection to tubs and bottles of a certain size and shape. Check with your recycler to find out their policies on plastic collection.
Municipalities that accept #5 plastic are fewer and farther between. The curbside programs in Sandy, UT, and Oklahoma City are rare examples of cities that accept #5 plastic bottles. A better option is to see if your local recycling center accepts #5 plastic. All the recycling centers in Iowa City, IA, take #5 plastic. So does the Shoreway Recycling Center in San Carlos, CA (it will even pay for used plastics, although the amount is pretty small). Use 1-800-RECYCLING’s recycling location search tool
to find a #5 plastic recycler in your community.
You can also recycle #5 plastic through a service called Gimme 5. The program is run by Preserve
, which makes consumer products from recycled plastic. Whole Foods Market is a major partner in the Gimme 5 initiative and has #5 plastic collection bins in many of its stores. If you do not live near a Whole Foods, you can mail all your #5 plastic to Preserve using the address on their website. There is no charge to recycle these plastics other than the cost of shipping.
How to safely dispose of medication
Government agencies and industry groups are making big strides toward dealing with the problem of prescription medication disposal. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration
has started National Prescription Drug Take Back Days designed to gather and properly dispose of unwanted medications. Working with local law enforcement agencies, each state sets up several sites where people can drop off pills. Take Back Days typically happen once or twice a year.
Some cities and counties have permanent collection locations for unwanted prescription medications. In Eugene, OR
, for example, people can drop medications in special collection boxes located inside government buildings.
Medications cannot be recycled for obvious safety reasons, but they can be burned in special incinerators that keep harmful substances from entering the air.
How to reuse medicine bottles
Old medicine bottles can be reused as storage containers for items such as sewing supplies, screws, nails and small hair accessories. They also look great incorporated into light fixtures, turned into vases or used as molds for homemade crayons.