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GSK Recycling Inhalers and Recovering Propellant

Challenge

Reduce the impact of inhaler use.

Problem

Many respiratory conditions are treated using inhalers. For example, there are 300 million people worldwide with asthma relying on these devices to manage their condition. They work by targeting the active ingredient where it is needed: the airways. Approximately 73 million respiratory inhalers are used in the UK each year, with at least 63% being placed in domestic bins after use, which then end up in landfill.

To work effectively the inhaler relies on a propellant – a liquid under pressure that can dissolve to an active ingredient but can be breathed safely as a gas as it is released. The propellant of choice was chlorofluorocarbons but these have been banned due to their ozone-depleting action. The replacement hydrofluoroalkanes (HFA) are as safe and much less harmful to the ozone layer. However, they have a high global warming potential.

Pharmaceutical company and inhaler manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has a total lifecycle carbon footprint of around 15 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalents per year; 5 million of that total is attributable solely to the HFA propellants they use in inhalers.

Solution

Complete the Cycle is GSK’s recycling and recovery scheme for all respiratory inhalers, and is the first of its kind. GSK worked with The Co-Operative Pharmacy, Movianto and Terracycle to establish an easy way to take back spent inhalers from the public and recover any remaining propellant (typically around 6%). The inhalers are collected as part of routine deliveries, ensuring no extra impact in their retrieval. GSK is recycling every respiratory inhaler collected, including those manufactured by other companies.

GSK is working on multiple approaches to reduce the impact of inhalers, from optimising their design to seeking alternative propellants, while maintaining the effectiveness and benefits to those with chronic conditions.

Benefits

In a pilot during 2011 the scheme collected over 62,000 inhalers and prevented the release of propellant equivalent to 436 tonnes of CO₂

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