1. ITV Report

Millions wasted on unused medicines in the West

As hospitals across the West struggle with debts, and A&E departments continue to fall short of government targets, ITV News can reveal tens of millions of pounds is being spent every year on medicines which are thrown away.

Hundreds of tonnes of prescribed drugs end up being incinerated, whilst an unknown quantity is flushed down the drain or added to landfill.

In Bristol alone, 10 tonnes of community pharmaceutical waste (i.e. from pharmacies and GP surgeries) is processed every day. Most of this is prescription medication that patients have returned either partially-used, or not opened at all. This tonnage does not include all the wasted medicines that are simply thrown away at home.

Estimated annual cost of unused medicines in Bristol, South Gloucestershire and North Somerset
This depot in Avonmouth handles 20 of these bins each day: medicine waste from Bristol, South Glos and North Somerset. Credit: ITV West Country/Caron Bell

There is no option to recycle medicines: as soon as a medicine leaves the pharmacy, it cannot legally be given to another patient. Many of the medicines we found in the yellow bins were brand new with unbroken seals.

On its way to incineration: an unopened asthma inhaler worth £30. Credit: ITV West Country/Caron Bell
Estimated annual amount NHS England spends on unused medicines
An unopened pack of diabetes pills worth £5. Credit: ITV West Country/Caron Bell

One GP we spoke to blames the repeat prescription system for the problem, a system which allows drug companies to make large profits:

Pharmacy companies have processes that allow patients to have their prescription items on a regular basis, and they don't complete the cycle, as they should do, of actually checking every month that the patient needs all the items that they are prescribed.

[Patients] routinely have these delivered and that's how the waste stockpile builds up.


Local NHS clinical commissioning groups are urging patients to check what medicines they have at home before they order more, and to cancel repeat prescriptions if they are not happy with their medication or no longer need it.