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Sustainability in pharmacy: A priority in Canada, but not one you have to tackle alone

Over 6,000 community pharmacies, acting as collection locations and working alongside HPSA, have collected 4,677,811 kg of unwanted medications since the program's inception.
10/25/2023

Across Canada, pharmacists are learning to navigate constant changes in their practices.

This includes an increased demand for their time and expertise. With evolving scopes of practice, paired with the current challenges in the Canadian healthcare system, such as physician shortages and long emergency department wait times, pharmacists have become one of the most readily accessible and trusted healthcare professionals.

Between filling critical gaps for patients and maintaining the services they provide daily, practicing environmental sustainability can be a nebulous task that may fall by the wayside. Evidence shows that pharmacists can, and do, have a major impact on communities and the environment, but no pharmacist should be expected to do it on their own.

As Canada’s only stewardship organization managing health products, we recognize the importance of our role in helping producers fulfill their stewardship obligations, educating consumers on the importance of safe disposal, and equipping pharmacists with the tools and support needed to implement these programs and better support the communities they serve. Together, we can help forge stronger ties acrper ceoss the healthcare sector.

Over 6,000 community pharmacies, acting as collection locations and working alongside HPSA, have collected 4,677,811 kg of unwanted medications and 3,141,828 kg of used medical sharps from consumers since the program's inception in British Columbia (only Medications Return Program), Manitoba, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island. The need for safe disposal options remains constant, as 98% of Canadians have unwanted medications, supplements, lotions, and medical sharps lying around their households, many of which becomes unwanted, expired or unsafe at some point.

Increasing role of product stewardship

As pharmaceutical companies continue to innovate and expand their product offerings, including medications and medical sharps for Canadians, the topic of product stewardship and impact mitigation becomes increasingly important. Household waste, resulting from expired or unused medicine or used medical sharps, can lead to environmental contamination when improperly disposed of. Medicines that are discarded in sinks and flushed down toilets enter sewage systems and can leak into aquatic ecosystems, with some drugs posing higher risks than others. Medical sharps thrown into the garbage pose a hazard due to possible needle sticks. In addition to the environmental risks, unused or expired medications and used medical sharps present a potential public health risk through accidental or intentional misuse, which could result in poisoning, especially for children and pets.

For pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmacists, this situation presents an opportunity to collaborate in order to mitigate these risks. For pharmaceutical companies manufacturing medications and medical sharps, this means determining the right product packaging and labeling to serve as a reminder for consumers. For pharmacists, it involves reinforcing proper disposal methods as an additional reminder.

HPSA is here to help

HPSA supports the preservation of our environment and the protection of communities, and we are committed to being a resource for pharmacies as collection locations In British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. Our aim is to assist the public in better understanding the importance of safe disposal while offering support to pharmacies in carrying out this essential practice.

There’s more than one solution

When it comes to the best safe medication and medical sharps disposal practices there are many things a pharmacy can do to encourage local participation in safe disposal:

Education and engagement: The public and pharmacy staff need to understand the impact their actions can have as environmental stewards. Providing people with information on safe disposal guidelines and the impact of pharmaceutical waste on the environment gives them the knowledge to make better decisions. This can be achieved through active and ongoing communication with the local community to raise awareness about sustainable practices. Pharmacies can participate in community initiatives or events focused on sustainability or offer educational materials to promote responsible medication disposal at key times during the year.

However, to encourage and promote safe disposal practices, pharmacy teams must understand the operations of return programs. Using the HPSA website, social media, and providing resources online, in person at pharmacy events and conferences, pharmacists can help educate customers about take-back programs and their benefits.

Join our efforts

Throughout the pandemic, the focus on health issues shifted drastically and had an impact on Canadians' habits regarding safe disposal. In 2023, we have an opportunity to increase the knowledge of the members of the public on the importance of proper disposal, helping to protect our households, communities, and the environment. Any retail community pharmacy in provinces where HPSA operates can become a collection location – participation is voluntary and free of charge. We're proud to provide extended value to all our pharmacy with resources that are valuable in helping them educate their teams and communities, igniting action on safe disposal.

It is important to remember that sustainability is a collaborative process. It cannot be achieved by one entity alone but requires the cumulative effort of many. It necessitates all of us playing a role in ensuring that a product's environmental impact remains low at all stages of its life, especially during the disposal stage. HPSA remains committed to being a resource for Canadians and a channel for the safe and environmentally friendly disposal of medical sharps and other unwanted or unused medications. At HPSA, we regularly publish content with valuable information for Canadians and pharmacies to improve how they dispose of their medications and medical sharps, along with tips on how to play a more active role. For more information, visit our website, LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook page.

Terri Drover is the director general for the Health Products Stewardship Association.

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