Prescription pill bottles—you know the ones, made out of see-through orange plastic with a white plastic locking cap—are ubiquitous. But they’re also ubiquitous in landfills, because they’re notoriously hard to recycle. Now, a team of designers has created a free alternative that can go into your compost bin when your prescription runs out.
Those orange medication bottles you’re familiar with are generally made out of plastic—polypropylene or #5 plastic, specifically. While technically recyclable, it’s actually very rare that it gets recycled. The sorters that recycling centers use to pick up recyclable objects, such as water bottles, often miss prescription bottles due to their small size. And #5 plastics aren’t accepted by all curbside recycling programs. Take Madison County, New York, which simply says upfront that the prescription pill bottles you get at the pharmacy “are trash.” With 4.55 billion retail prescriptions filled in the U.S. in 2020, that’s a lot of pill bottles ending up in landfills.
To solve the problem, designers at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, a branding agency that focuses on the health sector, partnered with Israeli social design collective Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) to design an alternative: a compostable, biodegradable pill bottle made out of paper. It’s the winner of the art and design category in Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards.
This paper alternative is designed to have a short life cycle. In fact, you can put it in the compost when you’re done with it and it will decompose, says Scott Carlton, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. That’s because it’s designed with paper, adhesives, and a water-resistant coating that are all biodegradable. (Finding a coating that would be water-resistant in the bathroom was the biggest challenge, according to Carlton. This one uses beeswax.) The design also complies with FDA regulations for child resistance. The run of 1,000 paper bottles that they initially hand-assembled ended up costing $4.50 per bottle, versus $0.35 each for the plastic version—which, of course, doesn’t include the environmental costs. Carlton says costs could come down to around $1.25 by automating the die-cut, folding, and adhesive process, and by increasing quantity.
The team landed on this final design after trying a few iterations, including paper molding. Eventually, they landed on this folded approach common in packaging design, because almost anyone could produce it with just a die-cutter and a makers space, explains Jeremy Scharlack, senior designer at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness. (The package template is open source, and the designers hope that other companies download it and use it for free.) After cutting out the design, all that’s required is folding the paper as directed, and the bottle is done. The design is currently being trialed by a few small pharmacies, but eventually, they want to take it “to the Targets of the world,” says Kathy Delaney, chief creative officer at Publicis Health/Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness.