For decades, unwanted medications have been flushed down toilets or landfilled. But growing concern over environmental impact to waterways, and over substance abuse, has spurred initiatives to more safely and securely manage household-generated pharmaceutical waste.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has semi-annual Drug Take Back Days, including one that was held on Saturday, Oct. 22.
But there has been a push for longer term approaches. As a result, 13 cities, counties and states now have Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws requiring pharmaceutical manufacturers to fund take-back programs to securely collect and manage unwanted medicines. EPR bills are being introduced in more jurisdictions. And voluntary programs are ramping up in scattered regions. These efforts are presenting opportunities for the solid waste management industry, and Covanta is one of the first to enter the ring.
Through their Rx4Safety program, the corporation has processed over three million pounds of household pharmaceutical waste since 2010. They combust it at no cost, which has been a fairly steep time and money investment. The generate a small portion of feedstock to turn to energy, but their main goal is to address public and environmental health problems.
Is combustion a better solution?
“We looked into combustion to manage pharmaceutical waste at a time when a lot was being flushed or landfilled, and concerns were rising about these disposal methods’ impact on waste water treatment systems and, ultimately, public health,” says Meg Morris, Covanta’s vice president of materials management and community affairs.
“We wanted to make sure that what we were doing was the best answer, and we worked with the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) to vet this issue.”
Most of PSI’s local and state government members believe that destruction at waste-to-energy facilities is currently the best option, reports PSI Executive Director Scott Cassell. Some members feel that hazardous waste facilities are a better alternative, but they come with a higher cost and carbon footprint, as the material must typically be transported a distance.
“Energy-from-waste facilities ensure that the requirement to render drugs nonretrievable in the DEA’s final rule … is met, especially those like Covanta whose efforts to prevent air pollution exceed those mandated by the federal government,” says Cassell.
Through Rx4Safety, Covanta works with the DEA and local law enforcement, taking waste collected through these organizations’ programs in most of the 16 states where Covanta operates. Prior they worked with local police departments on a smaller scale.
They began in New York, which was the only state that formally allowed drug combustion prior to 2010. Their next stop was Massachusetts where police departments in five counties now collect pharmaceuticals and bring them to Covanta for a secure burn.
Their Haverhill, Mass. facility takes drugs from Eastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. And they’ve continued to reach further.
The destruction process is worked into Covanta’s day-to-day operations
If the police just bring one truckload, it’s relatively simple. But operations ramp up on the semi-annual collection days with DEA. It’s a complex task.
“We are trying to keep the combusters at the right temperatures. Pills, pill bottles and the plastic bags they sometimes come in have a high BTU value. So we blend [the waste] with garbage to lower that value, which takes time,” says Morris.
“And we have new safety issues to address as we now have DEA agents on the tipping floor, so we have added precautions.”
Still Covanta is only one corporation, and does not provide the most convenient way to do residential collections. Thus the push for options such as manufacturer-funded kiosks at local pharmacies. Some drug stores have begun installing boxes. And Walgreens plans to roll out collection programs at 500 stores, according to PSI.
Reverse distributors have joined the movement, originally collecting drug waste generated at pharmacies and returning it to manufacturers for a fee. But some have begun collecting household pharmaceutical waste. A few, like Sharp Compliance, have their own destruction facility.
Covanta is unusual in that the corporation provides this residential service for free. The company wants to see these programs grow.
“If other states want to set up similar programs we would give them our help,” says Morris.
“Though our main role is awareness—to keep the issue on everyone’s radar screen until something happens legislatively at a national level.”