Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Reducing the environmental impact of pharmacy services

portrait picture of Elen Jones, Director for Wales at RPSBy Elen Jones, Director for Wales at RPS

The impact of medicines and pharmacy services on the environment is a pressing issue. Medicines are responsible for around 25% of carbon emissions within the NHS, which is why it’s important for pharmacy teams to take steps to reduce their environmental impact.

We were proud to announce that NHS England recently commissioned RPS to develop The Greener Pharmacy Guidance to support community and hospital pharmacy teams across Great Britain to take some simple steps to reduce their environmental impact.

Ways to reduce the environmental impact of medicines use and supply

Pharmacy teams play a crucial role in making medicine use more sustainable, but with so many pressures facing the profession, it can be difficult to know where to start. Why not try signing up to our Climate Change Charter where you and your pharmacy teams can access five core commitments and a range of other suggested actions that can be tailored to your circumstances.

However, reducing medicine-related carbon emissions isn't just about what pharmacy teams can do themselves. We're also calling for action from others in the industry, including manufacturers and researchers. By making the environmental risks of medicines readily available and promoting more academic research into the carbon footprint of medicines, we can enable prescribers and patients to make more informed choices that benefit the planet.

Check out our sustainability policies and learn more about what we’re calling for and how you can help make a difference.

Educating patients on the link between climate change and healthcare

As more people become aware of the challenge of climate change, there's a growing desire to make changes in our everyday lives. However, many patients may not realise the connection between healthcare, medicine use, and climate change.

Pharmacy teams can play a crucial role in educating patients about this link and working with them to develop more sustainable treatment plans. By taking a co-productive approach that empowers patients to be active participants in their own care, we can create better and more sustainable outcomes.

Some of the key messages we pass on include not stockpiling medicines, ordering only the necessary repeat prescriptions, returning any unused medicines to the pharmacy, and avoiding flushing medicines down the toilet or sink.

By doing this collectively as a profession, we can make a huge difference and create a more sustainable future for all.

Reducing medicine waste through efficient repeat prescription practices

Repeat prescriptions are a significant contributor to the amount of medicines prescribed, with estimates suggesting that they make up 75% of all prescription items. All members of the pharmacy team, along with prescribers, should collaborate to encourage patients to only order the medicines they need.

Encouraging the switch to lower carbon inhalers and reducing inhaler waste

Metered dose inhalers contribute to 3% of the carbon footprint of the NHS in the UK, but there are ways to reduce their impact. Pharmacists can play a vital role in this by reviewing a patient’s diagnosis, inhaler technique, frequency of use, and by discussing the environmental impact. By working in partnership with their prescriber, a patient could potentially switch to a lower-carbon inhaler.

The importance of inhaler recycling in reducing environmental impact

It’s important to be aware that landfill disposal of inhalers is harmful to the environment, both in terms of materials lost and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Even when the inhaler is spent, significant amounts of gas can remain in the canister, which contributes to the nearly 1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year from MDI use in England alone. Therefore, it's crucial to encourage patients to recycle their inhalers at the point of supply when a recycling scheme is available in the area.

However, the key to effective inhaler recycling is consistent availability of recycling schemes in all areas. We are calling for a circular economy approach to inhaler recycling to be introduced, consisting of a national separate waste stream in community pharmacies. This would allow for the gases to be extracted, cleaned, and reused, while the precision metal components and plastic would also be recycled and reused.

Climate change is a health crisis, but health can also change the climate crisis. Even if we all commit to just small changes to begin with, together we will make a big difference. Let’s all act now!

Read more RPS blogs.


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