A freelancer's blog

A bitter pill

Can you recycle pill packets? It’s a surprisingly difficult question, since the official line is “yes” but the real answer appears to be “with great difficulty, if at all”. 

The problem is that the kind of blister packs you get for tablets are usually made of multiple thin layers of plastics and aluminium. Before you can recycle them, you need to separate the different materials, which is a difficult and costly process. This is why they can’t just go in your normal household waste. So where do you recycle them?



If I had a penny for every time someone tells me “Superdrug”, I’d have enough cash to buy a travel-sized hydrating face mist. But it’s more complicated than that. Yes, Superdrug officially run a pill-packet recycling scheme. And yes, it does appear to be the UK’s first medicine packet recycling programme. But the participating branches are only those with pharmacies. To put that in context: Superdrug has 830 shops in the UK and Republic of Ireland, of which 200 have pharmacies. So the chances of your local shop having a pharmacy in it are slightly less than one in four. 

But perhaps a bigger problem than this is the patchiness of the scheme even within participating branches. I’ve been gathering anecdotal evidence about this on social media for quite some time, and it seems clear you can’t just waltz into a shop and easily locate the collection point. They get moved around, they disappear at intervals, they get placed behind the counter so you have to ask for them. 



In autumn 2023, Aldi began trialling a “game changing” recycling scheme for medicine packaging. Skimming the news story I’ve just linked to, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this meant collection points for blister packs in Aldi stores. But no! That would be too easy. The scheme required you to create an account with Terracycle, join the programme using that account, print off a shipping label, stick it on an envelope and post it to Terracycle. 

But before the disorganised-but-well-meaning among us start groaning at all the steps involved, do not fear! You don’t actually have to do any of this, because the scheme is currently on hold anyway (as I write this in May 2024).

 It’s not actually clear what made this an “Aldi” recycling scheme, given that Terracycle were doing all the actual recycling and the public were doing the printing and posting and envelope-buying. My guess is that Aldi’s contribution was financial – because the cost of the materials recovered from recycling blister packs does not cover the cost of the recycling process. This is also presumably why Terracycle set a limit on the number of packets you can send them: 60 per month, a maximum of 30 in each envelope. 



Boots is apparently rolling out a blister pack recycling scheme requiring you to download the Scan2Recycle app, collect 15 packs at a time and then drop them at “selected Boots stores”. We don’t know which stores, but I’m cynically guessing a tiny handful. (If your local branch turns out to be one of these, do let me know.) 


The difficulty is the point

As far as I can tell, the most reliable way to recycle pill packets in the UK in 2024 is to partner with Terracycle yourself. You can order a “zero waste box” for blister packets and put it in your shop or community centre or whatever. But even the smallest box costs £96 and once you’ve filled it and had the contents collected, you have to pay for a new one. It’s pretty clear that this particular recycling process incurs a net cost. 

This is why the recycling schemes I’ve described are so flaky-seeming and make you work so hard to participate.  If Superdrug or Aldi or Boots actually wanted people to recycle their pill packets, it would be very easy: just put a collection point in as many branches as possible, label it clearly and don’t move it around or hide it. 

But the cost involved gives the shops running these scheme a powerful incentive to keep recycling rates low. Why not just stop pretending and tell us to bin our pill packets? Well, if they categorically stated that this type of packaging can’t be recycled, people might start asking why they’re happy to make such heavy use of it whether they’re seeking alternatives. But vague schemes that appear and then disappear, with lots of barriers in place when they’re running at all, push the blame elsewhere.