pharmaceutical waste

A new OECD report proposes methods to reduce and better manage the increasing amount of unused or expired medicines, which risk contaminating the environment via sewerage systems or landfills, if disposed of improperly.

Management of Pharmaceutical Household Waste: Limiting Environmental Impacts of Unused or Expired Medicine finds that the share of household medication ending up as waste across OECD countries varies from 3 per cent to 50 per cent, and volumes are rising as ageing populations consume more pharmaceuticals.

According to the report, over the past two decades, per-capita consumption of lipid-modifying agents (such as cholesterol-lowering statins) has increased by a factor of nearly four and per-capita consumption of anti-diabetic and anti-depressants has doubled.

Improper disposal of this pharmaceutical waste is posing an increasing risk to the environment and human health, says the report. It claims that “conventional wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals,” and although “some pharmaceutical residues are removed to a limited extent and collected in the sewage sludge, these may still enter environmental systems, when sewage sludge is applied on land for agricultural use.”

Environmental contamination from improper disposal of unused or expired medicine has adverse effects on ecosystems and contributes to the development of antimicrobial resistant bacteria. Observed impacts on wildlife include traces of oral contraceptives causing the feminisation of fish and amphibians, and residues of psychiatric drugs altering fish behaviour. In addition, unused or expired medicines constitute wasted healthcare resources and can present a possible public health risk of accidental or intentional misuse and poisoning.

The report proposes measures to avoid, and better manage, pharmaceutical household waste including:

  • Finding ways to reduce volumes of unused or expired medicine. Improve disease prevention, precision medicine and package sizing, as well as marketplaces of unused, unexpired medicines.
  • Ensuring the environmentally sound collection and treatment of unavoidable pharmaceutical waste, for example through separate collection systems or the use of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes, already in place in several OECD countries.
  • Raising public awareness using well-focused communication campaigns on the importance of reducing pharmaceutical waste and on appropriate disposal routes, in particular for liquids, ointments and creams, which tend to be discarded improperly.