Life cycle comparison of environmental emissions from three disposal options for unused pharmaceuticals

Environ Sci Technol. 2012 May 15;46(10):5535-41. doi: 10.1021/es203987b. Epub 2012 Apr 26.


We use life cycle assessment methodology to compare three disposal options for unused pharmaceuticals: (i) incineration after take-back to a pharmacy, (ii) wastewater treatment after toilet disposal, and (iii) landfilling or incineration after trash disposal. For each option, emissions of active pharmaceutical ingredients to the environment (API emissions) are estimated along with nine other types of emissions to air and water (non-API emissions). Under a scenario with 50% take-back to a pharmacy and 50% trash disposal, current API emissions are expected to be reduced by 93%. This is within 6% of a 100% trash disposal scenario, which achieves an 88% reduction. The 50% take-back scenario achieves a modest reduction in API emissions over a 100% trash scenario while increasing most non-API emissions by over 300%. If the 50% of unused pharmaceuticals not taken-back are toileted instead of trashed, all emissions increase relative to 100% trash disposal. Evidence suggests that 50% participation in take-back programs could be an upper bound. As a result, we recommend trash disposal for unused pharmaceuticals. A 100% trash disposal program would have similar API emissions to a take-back program with 50% participation, while also having significantly lower non-API emissions, lower financial costs, higher convenience, and higher compliance rates.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adsorption
  • Biotransformation
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis*
  • Global Warming
  • Incineration / methods*
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / analysis*
  • Refuse Disposal / methods*
  • Toilet Facilities
  • Waste Disposal, Fluid / methods*
  • Water Purification


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations