Q&A: Recycling Prescription Bottles

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In my house when you finish a bottle of ibuprofen or cough syrup, or a box of allergy medicine, everything goes in the recycling bin. We rinse out the bottles and flatten the boxes, and then put these containers out with the rest of the recyclables on trash/recycling day.

I figured it was standard operating procedure just to recycle all of the containers from my medicine cabinet just as I recycle the shampoo containers from the shower or the milk jugs and salad dressing bottles from the refrigerator. Turns out I was just assuming that this was all possible–something I hadn’t even considered until I received this reader question:

Q: Do you know if you can recycle the bottles that prescription medicine comes in? I’ve always done this but someone recently told me that I should be throwing them in the trash instead. What should I do?

A: My initial reaction is that, of course, you can recycle these bottles. If you look on the bottom of the typical prescription bottle, you see a “chasing arrows” symbol with “5” inside. I mean, chasing-arrows anything equals anything recyclable, right?

Actually, no.

Though I knew this deep down, I’ve just discovered that not all chasing-arrows numbers are created equally. Here’s a quick refresher, via Earth 911 and Ecomii.com, on what each of the numbers mean:

#1 PET or PETE (Most soda bottles and water bottles come in this kind of plastic)

#2 HDPE (HDPE is the common plastic for milk containers and liquid laundry detergent jugs. Cereal box liners also fall into the HDPE category. Did you know you could even recycle those?)

#3 PVC (I think of PVC as the white pipes that you use in plumbing. Turns out vegetable oil bottles are made from it, too.)

#4 LDPE (This is the kind of plastic that is used to make plastic bags–and which you can recycle via those bins outside supermarkets)

#5 PP (PP stands for polypropylene. Hey, isn’t that what wet suits are made from? Anyway, it’s the plastic used in ketchup bottles, yogurt cups and, based on this post’s theme, prescription bottles.)

#6 PS (This is polystyrene, which is the material used to make non-cardboard egg cartons.)

#7 Other (Some polycarbonate bottles, such as reusable drinking bottles, have a #7 inside the chasing arrows and then the letters “PC” underneath.)

OK, so now that you know what each of the symbols stands for, here’s the deal: not all curbside recycling programs take all kinds of plastic. I must admit that I have no idea which numbers my trash hauler takes and which ones it doesn’t. I just toss everything I think is recyclable into our single-stream bin and figure the recycler will work things out on his end. Perhaps not the right attitude to have but there you go.

Back to the question of prescription bottles, though. According to my research, most brown prescription bottles are not recyclable with most trash haulers. I say most.

There are some that do take this kind of plastic, and it’s up to you to ask your trash hauler/recycling company if, in fact, they do take this kind of plastic. A quick search using Earth 911 uncovered that there are municipalities near me that recycle ALL plastics–#1 through #7. However, the nearest one was 23 miles away.

If you happen to live near Vancouver, British Columbia, a company called Pharm-Ecological Services might be able to take some of these prescription bottles off of your hands.

Finally, if your area is having one of those household hazardous waste (HHW) recycling events in the near future, find out if the prescription bottles qualify as HHW, and then make time to drop them off at the event. Madison, Wisconsin just had this kind of event, but it was medicine-specific and called “MedDrop.”

OK, so now that we’ve established that most #5 bottles are not easily recyclable, it’s important to point out that not all prescription bottles are made from #5 plastic. Some prescriptions come in an opaque white bottle, which has #2 HDPE on the bottom. That means that if your recycler takes milk jugs and laundry detergent bottles, you can feel comfortable that these little white prescription bottles will get recycled with this stuff, too. At the same time, those nifty red Target Clear RX prescription bottles are made from #1 PETE plastic. It, along with #2 HDPE, are the two most commonly accepted plastics for recycling.

By the way, this recycling-of-prescription-bottles quandary even stumps folks across the pond. Check out this lively discussion at the “How Can I Recycle This UK” website.

If it turns out that you can’t recycle your prescription bottles easily, don’t just dump them in the trash–and please don’t flush your extra meds down the toilet. Bring them back to the pharmacy for proper disposal.

Or you can think about ways that you can reuse the bottles. First, though, run them through the dishwasher. This is the best way to get them clean so that you don’t have to worry about any residual medicine tainting whatever it is that you put in the bottles. (I checked with an emergency room doctor about this. Here’s what he had to say: “Heck, we wash instruments from the lab in the dishwasher. Why wouldn’t this be good enough for prescription bottles?”) Nonetheless, I don’t recommend storing any kind of food stuff in the bottles, just to be on the safe side. And be sure to remove all of your personal identification from the bottle.

Now how can you reuse prescription bottles?

* Donate them to schools, shelters or charitable organizations that use them to create “trial sized” bottles of shampoo, lotion, and toothpaste that they can give out to the homeless and poor.

* Use them as mini-storage containers. A guy I know uses them for small electronic parts and hardware. His wife keeps needles, pins, spare buttons, craft supplies and more in them.

* Bring them to a local vet or animal shelter, which might be able to reuse the bottles when filling prescriptions for its animal patients.”I’ve never had a client offer this to me, but, yes it could be done. There is nothing illegal about it,” says Shawn Messonnier, DVM, a veterinarian in Plano, Texas, and host of the Sirius Satellite Radio show “Dr Shawn–The Natural Vet.” Not surprisingly, Dr. Messonnier says that the most important thing you should do before donating these bottles to a vet is making sure they are thoroughly cleaned.

Have I missed anything? Do you have other ideas for recycling or reusing prescription bottles? If so, post a comment. I look forward to heari
ng/reading your ideas.

OK, so I took my own advice–and the advice of the many people who commented and emailed me to wag their finger at me for not knowing what plastics I could recycle–and I called Allied Waste my new/old trash hauler and recycler. Turns out that they take plastics #1 through #7 so I’m in the clear. And how cool that I can recycle my prescription bottles along with the rest of my recyclables. I’m sorry for taking the lazy way out in the past.

12 thoughts on “Q&A: Recycling Prescription Bottles”

  1. Kim (above)’s daughter in law says that the government says it’s okay to flush some drugs. Really???!! I don’t want them in MY drinking water.

  2. I asked about this at our Pharmacy and was told I couldn’t reuse them. As we use 2/mos., I’m getting quite a collection. Not a problem yet, though. I have three girls…and lots of beads to store. 😉

  3. You should find out which plastics your local municipality recycles (our town has a guide). For example, we can recycle #1 and #2. Putting in items that can’t be recycled really messes up the sorting process and discourages companies from taking on recycling. Crazy when you can find out what is can be recycled with a simple phone call or on your town’s website.

  4. I send bottles that people collect for me to a Salvation Army hospital in Africa. You can get addresses of other Salvation Army run hospitals by calling your local Salvation Army. They use the bottles to distribute medicine on the wards.

  5. I have also heard that tossing in every plastic #1 – 7 when the local company only accepts #1 and 2, say, as in my community, is doing more harm than good. So until I can recycle all plastics, I have learned to accept that only some go into the recycle bin at our house.

  6. I’m sure this varies, but where I live when recycling is picked up, if there are too many non-recyclables mixed in, the trash/recycling company just throws the whole lot away. So it really is worth our time and energy to make sure we know exactly what our local companies do and don’t recycle- we could be inadvertently doing more harm than good by throwing everything into the recycling bin.

  7. Interesting article. I never considered by prescription bottles as recyclable.

    So if you throw a #5 plastic in your recycle bin when you are not suppose to, does the garbage company have a way to sort those out? If there are seven different types of plastic I would assume they have machine that can separate them?

  8. I’d like to find out if most pharmacies will take back the bottles for prescription refills. If I get an answer, I’ll post an update.


  9. My first though for anything that size is spice jars (we buy bulk spices and are always looking for small containers in which to store them). However, I’m not sure I’d want to keep spices in plastic, or in something that has had drugs in it. At any rate, #5 plastic is recyclable here, finally, due to our new single-stream program. We can recycle 1-7 now, which is great.

    Taking them back to the pharmacy for refills is a really great idea, too. I’ll have to start doing that.


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