Society has slowly become aware of the need to separate the household waste we generate.
A proper division of waste facilitates its recycling. The recycling of medicines is therefore very important. We recycle glass containers or bottles, paper, cardboard, plastic and even batteries, which we deposit in the various containers provided for this purpose. However, there are other products that, due to their special composition, are not susceptible to conventional recycling and therefore require appropriate treatment. We are referring to medicines.
Remains of medicines and their packaging also constitute household waste that must be properly managed. It should not be forgotten that many medicinal compounds are released into the environment.
Whether flushed down the toilet, sink or drain or through human excretions, they can cause emerging pollution. We are talking about pollution caused by chemicals that survive in wastewater even after treatment in wastewater treatment plants.
For the last ten years, the Integrated Management and Collection System for Medicines Packaging, better known by its acronym SIGRE, has been in charge of the collection of medicines packaging in Spain. In Spain, it is responsible for the collection of medicines and medicine packaging through collection points located in the 21,000 pharmacies throughout the country.
Sanitary and Environmental
Sigre's general manager, engineer Juan Carlos Mampaso, explains that this programme has a dual purpose: health and environmental. Health, because the programme uses advertising spots, radio and television broadcasts, and brochures to teach the population the importance of good management of the home medicine cabinet, of the medicines we have in our homes, and warns of the negative effects of self-medication. Environmental because if a medicine is flushed down the sink, toilet or drain it is harmful to the fragile balance of the ecosystem. Mampaso emphasises that "medication is a very unique waste, which deserves special care. Because it cannot be in the rubbish bin in the street, or in the doorway of the house or in a green point, but must be guarded in the pharmacy itself, in a container that guarantees security measures. And thus controlled by the pharmacy staff to avoid illicit trafficking, diversion and counterfeiting.
Hence the importance of the pharmacy being the only collection point because of the security and confidence it generates in citizens".
Sigre collects medicines from all pharmacies in Spain. Citizens bring their expired medicines there. The organisation has a treatment plant in Galicia, the first of its kind in Europe. This plant first identifies medicines that are classified as dangerous. These include cancer drugs, cytotoxic drugs, cytostatics and aerosols that contain gases and can be flammable.
This type of medicine is separated and sent to specialised hazardous waste managers for appropriate treatment. Packaging materials (paper, plastic, glass and metal) are then separated in order to recycle as much as possible. Non-hazardous medicines and non-recyclable packaging are completely disposed of but are used as fuel, either to produce electricity in thermal installations or by incorporating them into industrial processes, taking advantage of their calorific value.
State of the rivers
The European environmental and health authorities are carrying out studies of the major rivers in Europe to determine the degree of contamination by medicines. In the specific case of Spain, Mr Mampaso says that concentrations in the Ebro river, which he says is a very fast-flowing river, are still very low, in parts per million. Pollution has two origins. Human excretions are the main cause. When a medicine is taken, it is not completely metabolised. The person eliminates it through faeces and urine.
Purifiers are not able to filter out all the active ingredients, precisely because medicines are designed to be very stable molecules that last in the body. And that makes them very resistant. The other source of contamination, which fortunately is being reduced, comes from flushing medicines down the toilet and thus directly into the environment. For this reason, purification measures and techniques are increasing, and at the same time we are trying to design medicines that metabolise as much as possible and, because they are stable, can be easily biodegraded.
Ten years in the breach
After only ten years of existence, the programme has managed to get more than 70 percent of Spanish households to recycle medicines. The twofold environmental and health objective has been accepted by the public. But Sigre is not only limited to Spain, as it also serves as a reference for Latin American countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Brazil.
Despite the success of this programme, Sigre is not resting on its laurels. This initiative seeks to raise public awareness, improve treatment and recycling techniques and collaborate with research to design greener drugs. These are Sigre's challenges to achieve a better, more sustainable and healthier world for all.