SINGAPORE – After the last pill is taken, a patient or nurse will mindlessly throw away the medicine strip, which is made of polluting plastic and sought-after aluminum.
Drug strips – formerly known as pharmaceutical blister packs – cannot be recycled because they are made of plastic and aluminum heat-sealed with a type of glue.
It is difficult to separate the materials in this multi-layered packaging, so the strips are usually discarded as general waste.
To avoid having to throw them in incinerators, a group of engineering students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have developed a chemical recycling method to separate the plastic from the aluminum and recover the two components.
Both materials can then be sent to recycling companies.
This student initiative, called the Green Doctors Program, was born last August when a pharmacist from the National University Hospital (NUH) approached the NUS Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to find a way to reduce medical waste.
Every month, commonly prescribed medications at NUH account for approximately 200,000 medication strips used.
A total of about five million strips are thrown away every month in Singapore, said Ms Sophia Ding, founder of the Green Doctors program and a final-year civil and environmental engineering student at NUS.
Chemical recycling involves adding chemicals to waste materials to break down their original structures.
Ms Ding declined to elaborate on her team’s process for recovering the plastic and aluminum in the medical strips, as it is still in the early research phase.
After three months of research, the Green Doctors program concocted a recipe for dissolving the adhesive layer between plastic and aluminum earlier this year, so the materials could be separated.
The team, which includes about 10 chemical, environmental and mechanical engineering students, tested and worked to optimize their solution using medical strips provided by NUH.
“There were only two research papers on recycling medical blister packaging, so it was very difficult for us to find the methodology ourselves because we had to deduce and go to the origin of the materials,” said said Ms. Ding, 22.
“And we had to think about the technology behind heat sealing and how to separate the layers without damaging the original materials too much.”