In the process of improving health and saving lives, healthcare providers generate a large amount of waste. Pharmaceuticals account for much of that waste: the chemicals used in laboratories and drug manufacturing, sharps, plastic pill bottles and unused medications, to name a few. When not disposed of appropriately, these materials can have negative effects on health and the environment. A 2014 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found pharmaceuticals in every sample taken from wastewater. While the study found low potential risks for both humans and aquatic life, the environmental impact of medications in water systems may warrant further study.
Healthcare’s environmental impact is the primary issue behind the Sustainable Pharmacy Project, launched in 2019 at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Pharmacy. Co-founded by student pharmacists Ladan Karim-Nejad and Kayla Pangilinan, the project’s mission is “to educate future and current healthcare providers on the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals in order to encourage positive change for climate action and improved patient outcomes.”
The Sustainable Pharmacy Project is VCU’s first student-led organization that focuses on the connection between healthcare and the environment. To Karim-Nejad and Pangilinan, informing their fellow students seemed like an ideal first step in bringing attention to the issue. “There was kind of this missing piece, like a puzzle piece to the conversation, because pharmacists are medication experts,” Karim-Nejad said. “And so we should know what's happening in the beginning as well as knowing what happens at the end [of pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution].”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the project’s events moved online. Besides sharing information through its Instagram account, the Sustainable Pharmacy Project also holds virtual events. This has allowed the project to connect interested students with experts from across the country. Their first event featured William R. Godfrey, president of the Environic Foundation International, an organization focused on sustainability across nations and industries. Another event featured “Dr. Plastic Picker,” a California-based pediatrician who developed her social media persona to promote environmental advocacy.
Besides informing student pharmacists, another mission of the Sustainable Pharmacy Project is spreading awareness among the general public about healthcare waste and proper medication disposal. Recycling empty medication bottles and disposing of pharmaceuticals properly are two ways that consumers can help reduce healthcare waste. However, not all communities have recycling programs that accept medication containers or have established drug disposal programs. By bringing more attention to the issue, the project’s leaders hope that more U.S. locations will enable medication disposal, container recycling and an overall reduction of healthcare waste.
Even where recycling and disposal programs already exist, patients may not be aware of them or how to use them. The project’s leaders note that pharmacists, as publicly visible and respected providers, are uniquely positioned to inform patients and influence the way they think about medication disposal and recycling. “People trust you, and they take that really seriously,” said Kelly Pratt, secretary for the Sustainable Pharmacy Project. “And so [we need to say], ‘This is a medication, this is a big deal, you need to dispose of this properly,’ instead of simply throwing it away without giving a second thought to where it will end up.”