27: It’s a big plastic headache!

So, the other day I had a headache. I don’t get them often, nor do I suffer from migraines or anything like that, but this one hurt enough to reach for some relief. I went to the cupboard to fetch an aspirin. There were none. I’d have to go out and get some.

I went to the first chemist (Lloyds Pharmacy) and asked if they had any painkillers for headaches that didn’t come in plastic blister packs. Preferably some in a small glass bottle with a wad of cotton wool in the top (I’m old enough to remember those!). They said ‘no.’

I went to a second chemist (Superdrug) and asked for the same. They also said ‘no.’ Then I went to a third chemist (Boots) and decided to speak to the professional pharmacist. I asked her if it was possible to buy any brand of painkillers that didn’t come in a plastic blister pack. She said she couldn’t think of a single brand. I asked her why they had to be produced in a blister pack. She said it was to stop the individual pills becoming damp or being damaged. That’s what she said.

Now, call me cynical, but I’m not sure that’s the real reason. I could be wrong, but I think it’s more likely purely a packaging exercise. By law, over-the-counter painkillers in the UK can’t be sold now in packs of more than 16 tablets or capsules, and 16 would look a bit measly rattling around in a bottle. A cardboard box containing a blister pack, where the pills are more spread out, looks like better value for money. The number limit has come about for a good reason – to make it harder for people to buy large quantities and then overdose (suicide is on the rise in the UK, like most Western countries), but this has obviously come at a cost in terms of packaging.

So, what can we do? Currently nothing. Even supermarket own brands (the cheapest way to buy paracetamol or aspirin) come in blister packs now. And that plastic is not recyclable at all because it has foil attached to one side. The only way we can reduce this kind of single-use plastic is to only buy what we need and use them sparingly. Of course, sometimes you need an aspirin for that headache and we just have to accept that some single-use plastic is unavoidable.

You can buy some liquid painkillers for children in glass bottles, and if you need cough medicine, look for the products in glass bottles, but that’s all we can do – for now.

Of course, lots of people out there use alternative remedies to relieve pain. That’s a great way to ensure your pain doesn’t cause more pain to the planet. But if you do need to buy over-the-counter drugs, think about buying only what you need. Don’t stock up and end up throwing away out-of-date medicine. And when you’re there, ask your pharmacist why they don’t sell plastic-free pain relief. If enough of us ask, maybe the packaging will change.

Finally, I reckon this is a good time to remember the so-called ‘Serenity Prayer.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re not religious, it’s very apt when we discover a plastic problem like this one that we just can’t budge.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

PS: I ended up having to buy the aspirin in a blister-pack!

Rodin 1


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