Recycling pharmaceutical packaging

Medicine Packaging and Recycling

A medicine needs protective packaging to preserve its effectiveness through transport and storage, and to extend its safe and effective shelf-life.

Medicine packaging is designed to shield the contents from possible damage from things like heat, light, temperature fluctuations, and moisture. This packaging is subject to robust regulatory requirements to ensure the safety and integrity of the product

Recycling challenge

Despite the importance of eco-friendly packaging, changing the packaging of existing medicines to make them easier to recycle involves complex regulatory approvals.

The main challenge is ensuring that any changes do not compromise patient safety and there are no risks of contamination to the product or them recaptured materials. The direct contact between medication and packaging can make this a significant challenge.

While recycling medicine packaging is essential, there are challenges to consider:

  • Health and safety - prioritising patient safety above all.
  • Regulations - adhering to regulations set by health authorities such as MHRA, FDA, and EMA, as well as international standards-setting bodies.
  • Collection costs - the cost of collecting and sorting used packaging for recycling.
  • Recycling costs - the cost of the recycling process.
  • Manufacturing capacity - assessing the technological capability to efficiently recycle these materials.
  • Environmental impact - evaluating whether the energy used in recycling outweighs the environmental benefits.

Biodegradable alternatives

At this stage, there are no biodegradable alternatives for primary medicine packaging. However, any viable biodegradable alternative to blister packs would need to follow the same considerations as listed above – especially the risks of contamination.

Blister Packs

Blister packs are a mix of plastic and aluminium foil designed to keep medicines safe. However, separating these materials for recycling is exceptionally challenging. There is a high risk of contamination which is why most used blister packs end up being destroyed or incinerated.


Pressurised metered dose inhalers (pMDIs) are widely used for the delivery of medicines into the lungs for conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Inhalers use propellant gases which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

In an effort to reduce carbon footprints attributable to inhalers, many pharmaceutical companies are investing in alternative inhalers with lower carbon impact as well as schemes to recycle empty or out-of-date inhalers.

Read more about initiatives from our members

Chiesi & GSK


Current Initiatives and resources

Despite these challenges, there are ongoing efforts to tackle this issue. There is a large amount of research development investment going into alternative materials beyond plastics for primary packaging of active pharmaceutical ingredients from the pharmaceutical industry, academia, and research institutions globally.

Specialised Recycling Solutions

Some companies specialise in recycling medicine packaging. For instance, Terracycle offers collection boxes designed for this purpose.

Last modified: 08 May 2024

Last reviewed: 08 May 2024