Recycling Mystery: Blister Packs

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Ah, the blister pack, used to package everything from medications to toys. Perhaps the only thing harder than opening these plastic containers is determining whether or not they are recyclable.

Blister packs fall into the catch-all category of rigid plastics, similar to plastic cups, yogurt containers and clamshell packaging. While the recycling market was first limited for rigid plastics due to the challenges of transporting them (they can’t be crushed and baled like plastic bottles), more and more communities are now accepting them in curbside programs.

The “All Plastics” Mentality

In the old days, plastic recycling was dependent on whether or not you could find a resin identification code on the product. If you saw a #1 or #2, the chances a product was accepted increased. If no label was present, it was a safe bet that your local municipality didn’t want that plastic.

Now, our recycling sorting technology has gotten so advanced that materials recovery facilities (MRFs) can recognize and separate resins without the code, and most of the larger cities will accept “all plastics” unless they are in bag/film or foam form (e.g., Styrofoam). Blister packs would fall within the “all plastics” definition and be accepted unless your local program only accepts plastic bottles or specifically excludes them.

However, this could soon be changing due to China’s restriction on plastic imports. Many of our non-bottle plastics are exported overseas, so unless a domestic market emerges, local programs may be forced to stop accepting rigid plastics entirely.

Components Make a Difference

Blister packs often include several different materials. Photo: Adobe Stock

Depending on the product it contains, a blister pack is likely much more than just plastic. It could have a paperboard backing used for instructions and safety information, or an aluminum foil backing that allows you to easily remove the pills inside.

The plastic itself is either high-density polyethylene (resin ID code #2), polyvinyl chloride (#3) or polypropylene (#5), but you’ll rarely see a resin ID code on blister packs to help you identify them.

For recycling, your best bet is to separate all the different components. Tear away any paper or metal before placing blister packs in the recycling bin. All these products should be recyclable on their own, but leaving them connected will likely mean the paper or aluminum gets thrown away at the MRF.

For those unable to recycle blister packs at the curb, individual companies may offer mail-back solutions. For example, Bausch & Lomb offers a TerraCycle Brigade for its contact lens blister packs.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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