The survey of more than 2,000 people by PAGB, the consumer healthcare association, also found that around four out of ten (41%) throw old over-the-counter medicines into the bin with their general waste.
Just over a third of respondents (36%) said they take them to a pharmacy – the recommended way to dispose of them safely.
Commenting on the findings – released as world leaders gather to discuss environmental protection measures at the COP26 in Glasgow – Michelle Riddalls, CEO of PAGB, said:
“Many of us have forgotten about the last couple of pills in a blister pack of over-the-counter painkillers, medicines we no longer need or that final spoonful of indigestion relief in the bottle – and by the time we unearth them, they’re past their expiry date.
“It can be tempting to throw them into a black bag with the rest of your household rubbish – or, in the case of liquids, to pour them down the sink or the toilet.
“But there are important reasons why you shouldn’t do either.”
Pharmacist Deborah Evans said:
“Don’t tip leftover medicines into your kitchen sink or toilet as this can result in environmental contamination
“Throwing medicines into general waste can have the same impact if they end up buried in landfill.
“And by putting them in an open bin in your home, there’s a more immediate risk. They could be found by a child or someone for whom they weren’t intended, with dangerous consequences.
“Anyone in the UK with medicines to dispose of can take them to a community pharmacy where the team will manage their safe disposal.
“That hasn’t changed even during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“However, pharmacists and their teams may take additional precautions when accepting items directly from individuals, in recognition of the potential infection risk.
“They may also face an additional hurdle if there have been problems or delays in emptying their own waste medicine bins.
“If you have something unusual to return then do ask the pharmacy team first. For example, sharps, needles or veterinary medicines will not be accepted.”
If your pharmacist is temporarily unable to accept unwanted medicines, follow the guidance below to make sure you store it safely at home until you can dispose of it via the pharmacy.
– Keep unwanted medicines securely in a labelled box or sealed bag
– Make sure they are out of the sight and reach of children and pets
– Consider storing them in a garage or attic space, if you have one, until they can be returned to the pharmacy
– Don’t leave them near heat sources or running water
Remember that you can recycle any cardboard packaging and paper leaflets that come with your medicine – and look out for a scheme under which empty medicine blister packs can be recycled at special bins in around 200 pharmacies across the UK.
Around one in seven people (15%) in PAGB’s survey admitted to using over-the-counter medicines even if they are past their expiry date.
But you shouldn’t be tempted to take them even if you hate the idea of ‘wasting’ them, says Deborah Evans.
“At best, medicines that have passed their expiry date may not work as well. At worst, they might do you harm.
“If a label gives an expiry date stating a month and a year, don’t use the medicine after the end of that month – so if it expires April 2021, you shouldn’t take it after 30 April 2021.
“If it says ‘use by’ a certain date, that means you shouldn’t take it after the end of the previous month. So, for example, if it’s ‘use by’ April 2021, don’t take it after the end of March 2021.
“In addition, some medicines should not be used beyond a certain amount of time after they’ve been opened, even if they haven’t reached their expiry date.
“One example is eye drops. Unless the product says otherwise, all eye drops should be discarded within 28 days of opening because the bottle can become contaminated with bacteria and other microbes, resulting in an eye infection.
“You should always read the label and follow the instructions on any pack of over-the-counter medicine you buy.
“And if you have any questions or are uncertain about anything – whether it’s about disposal, expiry dates or any other issue – you can always ask your pharmacist for advice.”