Winning Student Design Reduces Prescription Bottle Waste

A rendering of the reusable prescription bottle proposed by NC State student Mallory Barrett in the national Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge.

An NC State student’s idea for reusable prescription medication bottles has earned top prize in a global design competition.

Raleigh native Mallory Barrett won Best Student Design in the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge that evaluates a designer’s use of principles associated with Cradle to Cradle certification, a third-party assessment of a product’s life cycle and impact on humans and the environment.

Barrett, who is majoring in Industrial Design, designed REX, a reusable prescription medication bottle that reduces waste associated with billions of prescriptions filled in America each year.

To replace single-use plastic medication bottles, Barrett designed a reusable bottle made of durable recycled stainless steel. These sterilized bottles would be distributed to pharmacies for filling, labeling and distributing prescriptions to customers. When medication is finished, customers would return the bottle to a pharmacy drop box, from which bottles would be transported for steam sterilization and redelivery to pharmacies.

Complete that cycle 14 times, and REX becomes more cost-effective to produce than single-use plastic bottles, according to Barrett. Her design also integrates a label holder for paper prescription labels, which customers can recycle, and bottle caps and child lock seals made of low-density polyethylene, which is also recyclable. Current child lock seals and caps tend to be made of two different plastics, which aren’t easily separated and are difficult to recycle, Barrett said.

“Some individuals take long-term medications and some take multiple medications at a time, which results in an extensive cycle of use, disposal and reproduction,” she said. “An item as crucial as prescription medication will always require packaging, and there will always be a cycle of consumption to some capacity, so why not make it one suitable for the circular economy?”

A circular economy strives to be waste-free by designing products that can be reused, recycled or composted. Barrett cited inspiration from a glass milk bottle program at a local grocery store, which offers a financial incentive for customers to return empty bottles that can be sterilized and reused.

“The inspiration for the design of REX was my own frustration with the cycle of wastefulness with which our world has become so comfortable. Packaging is one of the most notorious culprits,” Barrett said.

After hearing about the Cradle to Cradle competition through a studio class, Barrett spent six weeks researching, designing, developing and testing REX. The design had to meet strict standards for medication packaging and Cradle to Cradle certification, such as how the product’s materials are sourced and utilized as well as the energy and water footprints associated with manufacturing.

For now, REX is only a concept but Barrett has identified the next steps required for a pharmaceutical company or packaging supplier to bring the product to market.

“I am confident that it could be done, and that it would result in a drastic reduction of material consumption and waste,” she said.

While only time will tell if REX gains traction in the marketplace, this design process has helped solidify Barrett’s interest in sustainable and regenerative design.

“I hope to design in ways that are meaningful and truly beneficial both to users and the environments around us, by considering my material choices and production methods and large-scale effects of my design decisions,” she said.