In the consumer tech space, Apple has created a robot named Daisy with the specific job of taking apart old iPhones and recycling them, to the tune of 200 per hour! Sadly, we don’t have anything like that for used diabetes supplies at the moment, even though they seem to pile up like there's no tomorrow.
While our medical devices serve the critical role of keeping us alive and making living with diabetes easier, that doesn't mean we can't also care about the environmental impact our D-Supplies have on the world at large. We'd all like to find the most planet-friendly way to get rid of this stuff once we’re done with it. It's good to know that some general resources do exist for disposing of used medical supplies, in the form of local collection programs and a few national efforts like the non-profit AFYA.
For me, it's a constant question with each OmniPod site change, each new Dexcom CGM sensor, each new test strip vial and so on... they all leave behind a pile of waste that mostly ends up in the trash can, and eventually landfill. The cardboard boxes and papers inside many packages are easy to recycle with my usual curbside pick up, alongside my junk mail and Amazon boxes. But what to do with the rest of it?
We investigated the diabetes-specific options, which aren't as industry-based as you might expect, so in many cases it comes down once again to the DIY ingenuity of our community...
The major concern with recycling any diabetes devices -- from lancets to pump infusion sets to CGM sensors and insertion devices -- is of course the needles. However, with a pair of pliers and a little caution, insertion needles can be removed and disposed of in an appropriate sharps container.
- Used sharps should be immediately placed in a sharps disposal container.
- FDA-cleared sharps containers are generally available through pharmacies, medical supply companies, health care providers and online. These containers are made of puncture-resistant plastic with leak-resistant sides and bottom. They also have a tight fitting, puncture-resistant lid.
- If an FDA-cleared container is not available, a heavy-duty plastic household container, such as a laundry detergent container can be used as an alternative.
- DON'T USE milk jugs, soda cans, glass containers or water bottles because they can break or be punctured easily.
Each state and even local communities have different rules in place, so here’s a guide to sharps disposal in each state.
No More OmniPod Takeback Program
Unfortunately, we’ve learned that OmniPod pump manufacturer Insulet has ended its recycling program that’s been in place for the past decade in the USA.
Launched in 2008, Insulet’s “Eco-Pod” program was once touted as a green program to keep biohazardous waste out of the environment. The program would “separate any hazardous metals and materials and pulverize the remainder,” which didn’t exactly say it was recycling the Pods, but certainly sounded like a more responsible disposal method than tossing them in the trash.
As an OmniPod user, I had been excited to hear about this program. But I could only find the phone number for the Canadian program and since I got my Pods through a third-party medical supply company, return envelopes weren’t available. I continued to save my Pods for a while and would break them open and remove the batteries and springs -- but ultimately I realized I didn’t even know which pieces and parts were recyclable.
OmniPod users in the United States reported recently being notified that the Pod return program has ended. The company will still accept current return bags, but will no longer provide them.
Meanwhile, OmniPod users in the UK and Canada reported that their used Pod return programs were still available. New OmniPod users in the UK receive information in their welcome letter about the disposal program, which states that a partner company with a sustainability focus will make sure returned pods are “safely disposed of in line with applicable waste disposal regulations,” and that the heat from incineration generates steam to generate heat. Since waste disposal regulations and environmental guidelines vary by location, it makes sense that different countries would have different programs.
Insulet confirms that the return program in the USA has ended, but declined to elaborate with any details. We expect it's along the lines of what some in the online community have speculated, that low-participation rates didn't justify the costs of this recycling program. It’s a shame to see that program close down, forcing Podders like myself to find other ways to dispose of these little used Pods after the three days they’re stuck to the skin.
Hey, maybe instead of this program Isulet will do something like donate to a environmental conservation charity... We shall see.
Dexcom Still Pondering Recycling Program
When the Dexcom G6 was first approved and launched, the CGM company’s top executive said they were mulling a recycling or takeback program -- specifically for the new G6 one-button plastic inserter that is quite a bit larger than the older sensor insertion kits. In the first review DiabetesMine published, our own editor Amy Tenderich observed: “There’s a lot of 'bot' left to throw in the garbage... and given that it’s no longer clear plastic, it just feels very environmentally unfriendly.”
She’s not alone in that point, as one of the first pieces of feedback from the DOC on the new Dexcom G6’s auto inserter was concern about the amount of plastic waste created by the bulky new insertion devices.
Dexcom’s VP of Corporate Development Matt Dolan tells us that as of mid-August, the company's still exploring the idea of starting a G6-specific recycling program. But he wasn't able to elaborate either, or even say when a decision might be made on that one way or another.
Meanwhile, lots of folks in the community are concerned about recycling G6 parts as much as they possibly can.
For example, D-Mom and Looping community leader Katie DiSimone disassembles each of her daughter’s used G6 inserters. “I recycle as much as I can. It’s just overwhelming how much waste comes with those things and imagining it all over a lifetime makes me want to at least recycle where we can’t reduce or reuse," she says.
Scott Paradis, a software developer who lives with type 1 diabetes and has an industrial design background, broke open his own G6 insertion device and was disappointed to learn that the design was not recycle-friendly. “Their choice of plastics, which appear to include nylon and polystyrene, are rarely recyclable in municipal programs,” he explained.
Most Recycle-Friendly Diabetes Supply?
Despite the many different brands of diabetes devices and supplies out there, the above-mentioned efforts by Insulet and Dexcom are the only industry-created concepts we were able to identify.
We have heard fellow PWDs praise the design of Medtronic Mio infusion sets that seem almost made to be properly disposed of, compared to everything else out there.
Paradis, for one, says: “I give Medtronic a lot of credit with their Mio design. It functions as both packaging and the insertion device with a living spring built into the device made entirely of recyclable plastic. The amount of waste is limited to a very small amount of cellophane and the infusion tubing itself which is discarded after use. Only a very small insertion needle and the infusion site cannula would be biohazard waste. Almost the entirety of the product is manufactured from polypropylene, which is a very widely recycled plastic.”
According to Paradis, the Mio sets actually have a clear recycling symbol on them and are 95% recyclable, as long as the needle is removed (they can’t be recycled with the needle still in place).
Getting Crafty with Do-It-Yourself Disposal
Clearly there is a desire among people with diabetes to be environmentally conscious, and a willingness to get creative to do so.
“The sheer amount of waste generated is hard to ignore,” Paradis said. “While I have little choice in the types of supplies necessary to manage my condition, I can still be proactive in minimizing my waste footprint.”
In the #WeAreNotWaiting groups online, you can regularly find tales of those who've donated old transmitters and sensors to DIY-experimenters to reuse for testing and building purposes. Regarding sharps disposal, we've also seen pictures and heard stories from around the D-Community of crafting homemade disposal vessels, from milk jugs to juice containers, many of which are of clear plastic with handwritten labels marking “sharp medical supplies” inside.
Remember that fun Diabetes Art Day, an online effort some years ago where the community collectively used old diabetes supplies to create their own artwork relating to life with diabetes? That was a great way for so many folks to use old test strips and various supplies in a positive, creative way. Lilly Diabetes has more recently shared a lighthearted idea of using old insulin vials in an artsy way to create a "message in a bottle," marking diabetes anniversaries or other D-moments. Of course, as you'd expect, some in the #insulin4all community have suggested tweaking the message inside those vials to callng on Pharma to address the outrageously high cost of insulin.
In the end, we have to make due with the options at hand when it comes to disposing of these used supplies... Unless of course our resourceful DIY community comes up with a better way -- like our own recycling Daisy robot to do it for us, perhaps?