How to recycle blister packs? A complete analysis
A blister pack is a very common kind of primary packaging made of rigid plastic and a lidding material, used to pack a variety of small consumer items: toys, cosmetics, stationery, and of course, medicines.
It is made of a cavity made in a thermoformed piece of rigid plastic, with a backing of paperboard or aluminum foil.
The product or medicine is placed in the cavity between the layers of backing and plastic.
In the case of medicines pushing through packs, the lidding is of brittle aluminum foil, and you can push the pill from the plastic side so that it comes out by breaking the aluminum foil.
How to recycle blister packs?
Blister packs are one of the most common packaging materials on the planet. Even if you strictly avoid plastic packaging, you will still end up with blister packs. The main reason for this is the widespread use of blister packs to pack medicines, supplements, and other pharmaceutical products.
Blister packs greatly increase the shelf life of medicines–repeated exposure to oxygen, as happened with old glass medicine bottles, can degrade medicines–while also allowing unit dose packaging and providing some security against tampering. And as you or someone close to you will need medicines, blister packs will keep collecting in your home.
But, while they are easy to produce and great for packaging, blister packs are very difficult to recycle.
Blister packs are counted in the universal category of rigid plastics– you know, the one yogurt cups and plastic bottles fall into– but unlike those types of plastic waste, blister packs are generally not accepted at curbside recyclers. This is because of two reasons:
- Blister packs are hard to transport
- The plastic is contaminated with the backing material
Compared to yogurt cups and bottles, blister packs are smaller and lighter, making transporting them from the collection point to the recycling center a hassle.
Blister packs can be made up of a variety of different types of plastic, but you will be hard-pressed to find a blister pack that has a code that tells what kind of plastic it is. Like this
But the different types of plastic cannot be recycled together. Each type of plastic must be recycled separately–the presence of another type of plastic in the lot will contaminate the whole lot, and the recycled product will be of no use. So different kinds of plastic must be separated before they are recycled. In fact, plastic waste goes to a Material Recovery Facility that separates the different kinds of plastic for recycling.
Going through and sorting hundreds of thousands of blister packs that would end up at an MRF would need much more manpower than such facilities have or are able to afford. That is why recyclers do not accept blister packs, and they end up in landfills.
But, all hope is not lost. Modern material recovery technologies are advancing in leaps and bounds, and we already have such MRFs that can recognize and separate different types of plastic on their own.
Thus municipalities are starting to accept blister packs for recycling increasingly. Recycling programs in larger cities will accept all kinds of plastic, including blister packs, almost everything except bags, films, or styrofoam.
So check out if your local recycler takes blister packs. But sorting is only half the problem; your blister packs might get rejected because of another reason.
Blister packs cannot be recycled with the lidding
As we said before, there are two parts to a blister pack: the plastic and the lidding that is made of paper or aluminum. If this lidding ends up in the recycler, it will contaminate the whole batch.
So you need to remove the lidding before you send the blister pack for recycling. So you need to prepare the blister packs before you send them for recycling,
Remove the lidding from the blister pack
Paperboard backing is generally easy to remove: if you cannot tear it off, try soaking the packs in water overnight. This is to soften both the cardboard and the adhesive attaching the backing to the plastic. You can recycle the cardboard separately.
On the other hand, aluminum foil can be quite tricky to get off. Peel off as much as you can using your nails or some other sharp object like a paper-knife. Aluminum foil is usually heat-pressed, so you might not be able to get it all off.
Cut the blister packs
In case you can’t get all the aluminum foil off a blister pack, cut the blister pack using scissors to separate the areas that have foil from the pure plastic.
The foil-free plastic pieces will go to plastic recycling, and the pieces that have foil on them will go to the trash.
As for the foil, collect them till you have enough, press them into a ball and send them to a recycler for recycling. Or put them in a container made of foil. Don’t dump tiny pieces of foil into a recycling bin.
Terracycle accepts blister packs
As always, Terracycle comes to the rescue by accepting all types of blister packs.
If you don’t know, Terracycle is a company that provides recycling services to households and companies. They recycle many types of waste, from normal hard plastic to toners and salon waste, including those that other recyclers don’t want to handle.
You can get their All-In-One Zero Waste Box, where you can put every kind of waste, including blister packs. Once the box is full, send it back to Terracycle–they will give you a prepaid return label–and all your waste will be recycled.
Check the Terracycle website to see if your area is covered.
The All-in-One Zero Waste Box starts at $199 for the small one and goes up to $467 for the large box. If this seems costly, you can get together some family or friends and fill up the Zero Waste Box together to divide the cost among yourselves.
If you are only putting blister packs into the box and sending your other waste to the curbside recycler, it will take you a long time to fill up the box.
Clam packs are easier to recycle
Clam packs or clamshell packs are a kind of blister packaging that does hot have cardboard or foil back. Instead, the plastic is folded upon itself to make the backing. The plastic itself, heat-sealed at the sides, makes a closed container. The bubble may be evenly distributed on both sides.
Clamshells are easier to recycle because you do not need to painstakingly remove any foil and can be sent to a recycler as it is. Some clam packs, however, may have a paper in between the two layers of plastic.
Why are blister packs so popular?
Go to an aisle in a supermarket, and you will see a lot, I repeat, a lot of blister packs around you. Here’s why they are used so widely:
- Blister packs are cheap to make.
- Blister packs form a very good seal for the product inside. This is especially important for packaging medicines but increases the shelf life of all products.
- Blister packs are see-through–making it easy for the consumer to see and the brand to show off their product in a sea of offerings.
- Blister packs are minimalist. They take up little space in addition to the product inside while providing sufficient protection. This reduces transport costs and makes it easier to arrange on a retail counter.
- Blister packs are tamper-proof (more or less).
How are blister packs produced?
One of the reasons blister packs are so popular is because they are easy and cheap to make. To make a blister pack, a sheet of plastic is heated and then quickly molded to make a cavity. As the plastic cools down, it stays in the cavity shape, which is called thermoforming.
The cavity can be made in the shape of the item it will hold–this is the case with packing most consumer items. In the case of medicines, multiple bubbles are made in a single sheet of plastic, each for a single dose. This way, you can take each pill out without exposing the rest.
What are blister packs made of?
Blister packs are made of a variety of rigid plastics. In the US, you will generally get blister packs made of #3 PVC or #6 Polystyrene. In Europe, however, they are usually made of #1 PET and #5 polypropylene plastic.
The lack of this numbering makes it very hard for a layman to know what kind of plastic a blister pack is made of. So they must be sorted only at the material recovery facility.
Why should you recycle?
By recycling, you help the environment and, by extension, yourself by reducing pollution and waste production. Recycling has many benefits: it keeps waste out of landfills, where some materials–especially plastic–can stay for thousands of years.
Plastic that goes into a landfill not only takes up precious space but also gives off nasty chemicals into the soil and pollutes groundwater. It also means those materials are taken out of use indefinitely, and new materials must be manufactured to make new products.
By recycling, you reuse these materials and help cut down on the economic and environmental costs of producing them from raw materials.
In a truly sustainable economy, all waste, including plastic waste, will be recycled to create new stuff, and exploitation of natural resources will be kept to a minimum.
How does plastic recycling work?
All collected plastic waste goes to a material recovery facility (MRF), where they are sorted into different types of plastic. Some, like plastic bags, styrofoam, or plastics that are contaminated beyond cleaning, are discarded and disposed of as trash.
The rest of the plastic, now sorted, goes to shredding machines that shred them down into small pieces. The plastic is cleaned thoroughly either before or after shredding, and it is checked again, and pieces that are not clean enough are discarded.
The shredded plastic is now melted down into little pellets that are sent to plastic producers to make new products.
How to deal with medicine blister packs?
Certain molecules may contaminate medicine blister packs from the pills stored inside them. While this might not seem like a big deal, if you regularly handle blister packs and remove the foil backing to send them for recycling, it can have adverse effects.
It may be a good idea to wear a mask and gloves while cleaning medicinal blister packs and properly clean your hands afterward. Supplement packaging is usually safe to handle as it is.
Blister pack recycling schemes
Many blister pack recycling schemes may be available depending on where you live. These schemes usually accept blister packs, especially medicinal blister packs, as they are without you needing to defoil or clean them. Here’s what you need to do to avail these services:
Ask your local pharmacies: Pharmacies often have take-back programs or may be able to point you towards others who accept blister packs for recycling.
Superdrug has tied up with Terracycle to provide blister pack recycling at their stalls, while Bayer in the UK offers similar services to their customers too. Keep an eye out for Superdrug or Bayer recycle bins in your pharmacy.
Reusing blister packs
Blister packs are not the most reuse-friendly products, but with a little imagination, you can use them to make a variety of things, like:
Travel paint palettes
Want to pack some paint while traveling but don’t want to carry the whole tube? Just pour some paint into the different bubbles of an empty medicine blister pack, let dry, and you have a paint palette to carry with you.
You can cut up blister packs and use them in many ways in miniature models, like wheels, caps, or even miniature chimneys!
Accept it: googly eyes are fun. And you have probably wanted to get a pack of googly eyes at some time or another. If you have a clear blister pack, you can use it to make your own googly eyes.
In conclusion, finding a recycler who accepts blister packs is still quite hard. It might so turn out that you have no recycler close to you that accepts them, and the cost of Terracycle Zero Waste boxes that take blister packs might be too much for you.
In that case, do not feel sad, for if you are only producing blister packs as trash and recycling everything you can, you are probably as close to zero waste living as is possible in today’s world.
Also, do not wishcycle: do not put non-recyclable materials in recycling bins just to get it off your conscience. You might be hindering recycling and doing more harm than good.