Inhaler recycling

When we analysed our carbon footprint in 2010, two things became clear: we needed to take action to reduce it, and we needed a better understanding of how individual products affected the environment.

The impact of one particular product was immediately obvious, however. Our inhalers produce 5.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, and are the second biggest contributor to our global footprint - just after the transportation aspects involved in making and supplying our products around the world.

Propellant versus production

As we began to look into the carbon footprint of our inhalers, we soon realised that there was no one-size-fits-all solution. This was because the factors making up the footprint of each inhaler device varied widely.

For example, we found that 95% of the footprint produced by one of our metered dose inhalers (MDIs) was a result of the propellant it released into the atmosphere. But when we analysed the footprint of our Diskus dry-powder inhalers –which don’t need propellants - we found 65% came from the plastics and the energy used in its manufacture and supply.

Our approach to reducing the footprint of each product is therefore very different. For dry powder inhalers, our efforts are focused on recycling the plastics in the device and improving the efficiency of our operations.

For our propellant-based inhalers, we are exploring a range of options, including reducing the amount of propellant used, capturing propellant lost during manufacturing, recycling used devices and investigating alternative propellants.

Work in progress – propellant reduction

Eliminating CFC gases from our products has substantially reduced inhaler emissions – from 24 million tonnes CO2-equivalents in 1998, to less than five million tonnes today. But we are striving to do more, as the replacement propellant in MDIs is still a very powerful greenhouse gas. Increasingly we supply inhalers that do not use propellants, but some people, particularly children, find these dry-powder formulations difficult to use.  

Complete the Cycle - inhaler recycling in action

Complete the Cycle is our recycling and recovery scheme for all respiratory inhalers, and is the first of its kind. We aim to provide a convenient way for patients to recycle their inhalers, to help reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and move towards a more environmentally sustainable approach to treating respiratory disease.

The scheme underwent a successful trial in the UK in 2010/2011, and is now being expanded in these countries and also rolled out to other markets including Australia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Chile – where it launched in January 2013.

We work with pharmacists to encourage patients to return their empty inhalers when they collect a new one. The pharmacist sends the inhalers to our recycling partner, where the plastics are separated for remanufacturing and any remaining aerosol propellant is captured.

In the UK, the trial started with the Cooperative supermarket chain and has since extended to cover 75% of the population, comprising nearly 300 pharmacies and collecting 62,000 inhalers to date. Saving the propellant, which is a potent greenhouse gas, has avoided the equivalent of 35 tonnes of CO2 emissions so far.

Arthur Groy, an Oncology scientist in our Philadelphia lab.

GSK Responsible Business Supplement 2016

Download GSK Responsible Business Supplement 2016