The ‘major challenge’ of recycling plastics from asthma inhalers and insulin pens – WTOP

The ‘major challenge’ of recycling plastics from asthma inhalers and insulin pens – WTOP

Small medical devices such as asthma inhalers, insulin pens and EpiPens are a necessity for millions of people, but they also come with a downside as the plastics in them are extremely difficult to recycle and typically end up in the household trash.

According to a recent New York Times article, Novo Nordisk manufactured 750 million insulin pens in 2021 which included more than 28 million pounds of plastic.

“It is a major challenge being able to responsibly manage the end of life of these kinds of devices,” said Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, a recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle materials.

According to Szaky, the problem centers around the actual cost of recycling certain items.

“It’s important to note that recycling companies that operate your local recycling service are for-profit companies,” Szaky said. “What they’re not going to recycle is something that would cost more to recycle than the results are worth.”

Recycling an aluminum can, for example, generates a good amount of value because aluminum is valuable and recycling it doesn’t take much effort.

The same goes for recycling cardboard boxes.

With other more complicated items, such as asthma inhalers, it is a completely different story.

“It’s made up of multiple materials,” Szaky said. “You have alloys, polymers, metals and plastics, but also active ingredients and propellant.”

“All of these materials have to be managed differently,” Szaky added.

According to TerraCycle, the company has been recycling asthma inhalers in the U.K. through a partnership with Teva Pharmaceuticals since 2016, with Teva funding the actual cost of collecting and processing the devices.

“In that period of time, we’ve collected and recycled about half-a-million asthma inhalers,” said Szaky. “This can get meaningful, but it requires that commitment from, in this case, the manufacturer to cover the costs.”

At some point, companies may face requirements to help out in similar ways.

“That may be a role for regulation,” Szaky said. “We do see in the United States, for example, many states have started to pass extended product responsibility regulation, which is a way to create funding to offset the issue.”

Recycling overall has been on a downward trend in recent years.

The amount of plastic collected and recycled in the U.S. dropped by 40% between 2018 and 2021, according to TerraCycle.

Get breaking news and daily headlines delivered to your email inbox by signing up here.

© 2024 WTOP. All Rights Reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.