Americans are used to receiving their prescription medications in hard plastic orange bottles with child-safety caps that keep pills stable.

This isn’t the case for many living in low- or middle-income countries around the world, where medications can be dispensed in folded paper scraps, leaving them vulnerable to weather or accidental ingestion.

Lion works to peel labels off used pill bottle.
Stafford Lions Club members Sharon Gaylord (left) and Karen Taylor wash donated pill bottles. The cleaned containers are ultimately shipped overseas , where they’re used to safely distribute medicine. Photo by Peter Cihelka.

A Cincinnati-based nonprofit, Matthew 25, accepts donations of used, cleaned pill bottles and ships them overseas where they can be used to safely distribute needed medicine.

For the past two years, the Stafford County Lions and St. Luke’s Anglican Church have been collecting pill bottles to send to the organization.

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, and this truly is a treasure to people who are seeing their medications degrade,” says Sharon Gaylord, who leads the effort for the Lions club. “And it’s good for our earth, too.”

Orange prescription pill bottles are made from No. 5 plastic, or polypropylene. The qualities that make No. 5 plastic ideal for storing medications—durability and heat-resistance—also make it difficult to recycle.

China used to buy much of the U.S.’s No. 5 plastic, but stopped this practice in 2018. Without that market, the U.S. recycling industry is having to figure out how to deal with the plastic on its own.

Gaylord read about Matthew 25’s mission—to provide medical supplies and disaster relief to the most needy countries—in a newspaper article and felt inspired to start a local effort to support the nonprofit.

“As Lions, we have a multifold mission, but part of it is environmental,” Gaylord says.

The Stafford Lions Club also works with businesses and individuals to recycle printer inkjets, toners, cellphones, laptops, and eyeglasses. The pill bottle drive fit with its mission.

Gaylord is also a member of St. Luke’s Anglican Church in southern Stafford and she put out word to the congregation about the pill bottle drive.

In the past two years, Gaylord said she sends a shipment of pill bottles to Matthew 25 every four or six months.

“I’ve got a box of about 1,000 [bottles] right now that I’m getting ready to send off,” she says.

Matthew 25 asks for donated pill bottles to have all labels and glue or residue thoroughly removed and for them to be cleaned, dried, recapped and placed in clear Ziplock bags.

Gaylord and her friend and fellow Lion Karen Taylor work together to clean bottles that haven’t already been prepared for donation.

“It’s a bit labor-intensive and it can be difficult to get the stickers off,” Gaylord says.

She swears by Goo Gone for the job.

“I find if I soak them in hot water, that softens the paper and then I spray them well with Goo Gone and put them in a plastic bag, zip it up and let them sit,” she says. “And it’s amazing how fast it comes off.”

If the used pill bottles aren’t acceptable for donation with other medical supplies, Matthew 25 will recycle them to generate revenue.

Gaylord said she’d like to see the pill bottle recycling effort spread.

“It’s something that other organizations could do very easily,” she says. “It’s really just a matter of cleaning them and putting them in boxes.”

Shipping can be expensive, but she and her husband consider it a donation to the Lions club for the moment, because the COVID-19 situation has caused the club’s fundraising efforts to dry up.

She also believes Matthew 25’s mission to “[care] for a needy world with the things we throw away” is worth it.

“The whole idea of Matthew 25 is to help the very poorest of the poor,” she said. “It’s recycling and it’s helping.”