DEA’s Drug Take Back Program Resumes After COVID Delay and Stericycle's Role

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

October 23, 2020

8 Min Read
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The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is hosting another Drug Take Back event Oct. 24 – the first since the pandemic forced suspension of these nationwide events where individuals can safely and conveniently dispose of leftover or expired medications, usually at law enforcement agencies.

Kristin Aldred Cheek, National Manager, Consumer Drug Take Back for Stericycle, sat down with Waste360 to discuss this 10-year initiative, as well as how COVID-19 has affected the company’s customers, who are large medical waste generator.

Stericycle, who has treated over 1.8 billion pounds of medical waste annually, removing potentially infectious materials, provides support in areas such as regulated medical waste management, secure information destruction, and compliance.

 Aldred Cheek not only discusses Drug Take Back, but how Stericycle customers have been impacted by the pandemic; how the company is supporting them to ensure safe drug collection and disposal; and how jurisdictions around the country are working toward these same safety goals.

Waste360: How has COVID-19 contributed to the pile-up of unused/unwanted drugs, and how has the pandemic impacted their safe disposal?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: At the beginning of the pandemic, many people may have stocked up on their prescriptions (i.e., from 30- to 90-day supplies) and over-the-counter medications to avoid going into stores. At the same time, many drug take back hosts had to temporarily close, including some law-enforcement drop-off sites that didn’t have a safely distanced kiosk within their facility. When the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) canceled National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in April, Americans were left with limited options to safely dispose of their unused/unwanted drugs.

As a result of the limited drug take back options during the beginning of the pandemic, there may be many people that have a large supply of unwanted medications. In the coming months, we will likely see an increase in expired prescription and over-the-counter medications requiring safe disposal. Fortunately, drug take back sites have now reopened, and the next DEA Drug Take Back Day is October 24.

Waste360: How is the pandemic impacting your clients who are responsible for safe disposal of drugs? And how are you supporting them?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: COVID-19 has had a significant impact on healthcare practitioners, with patients canceling elective procedures, and many practices temporarily closing. This may have led to healthcare facilities generating less drug waste than normal for a short time. However, as the pandemic progressed, healthcare facilities have reopened and resumed caring for patients under the new conditions.

COVID-19 testing quickly ramped up for hospitals and pharmacies across the country, and we have supported medical waste disposal for hospitals and temporary treatment sites in some of the hardest-hit areas of the United States. Our industry leadership gave us an opportunity to support testing centers, temporary quarantine, or treatment facilities in nearly 40 states, including the Javits Center, USNS Comfort hospital ship, USNS Mercy hospital ship, and McCormick Place, as well as national retailers who are expanding their testing services to include COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, we serviced more than 1,000 COVID-19 testing sites.

Waste 360: What guidance can you give medical waste generators during these especially challenging times?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: Healthcare facilities should ensure they are still properly disposing of pharmaceutical waste. Some facilities have asked about the proper disposal of medications from a COVID-19 patient room, and our guidance is to follow the facility’s infection control protocols, as they do for other isolation rooms.

In addition, with many consumer-facing options for drug disposal canceled earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals are asking their doctors and pharmacists how to dispose of unused medications. While the DEA’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is moving forward as planned on October 24, we urge healthcare facilities to guide their patients to information about local law enforcement agency or pharmacy drug take back events or initiatives available between DEA’s twice-yearly events. There are also solutions healthcare and retail facilities can provide to patients to dispose of leftover medications, such as Stericycle’s Seal&Send Medication Mail Back Envelopes or Drug Take Back Kiosks.  

Waste360: What specifically is Stericycle doing to step up to challenges brought on by the pandemic?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: Even before the pandemic we were positioned to offer support through these new challenges. Our expertise in medical waste management and our national footprint enables us to be well-positioned to respond to emerging changes and provide the flexibility required by healthcare businesses through our 200 plus facilities and our fleet of more than 1,500 trucks.

In addition, our regulatory team has worked closely with federal and state agencies to provide guidance around the best course of action for properly managing COVID-19 waste. We continue to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and state regulatory agencies to help customers navigate the pandemic and inform them about regulatory changes as they may occur. Stericycle also launched a COVID-19 knowledge center and webinars to further support customers and the industry during this challenging time.

As facilities began to temporarily close, we adjusted our operations to meet the needs of these facilities, as well as adapted our procedures to align with the CDC guidelines and healthcare facility protocols to continue to serve healthcare businesses reliably, safely, and compliantly. For example, throughout the pandemic, we implemented additional protective measures for our drivers and front-line staff, such as providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and staggering shifts to promote social distancing. In addition, we dedicated trucks to specific drivers to reduce potential exposure and implemented more rigorous cleaning protocols for all facilities.

Waste360: What do you want our readers to know about the spikes in overdoses through the pandemic?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: There are many contributors that may lead to a person’s misuse of prescription and over-the-counter medications. This misuse is concerning, as it is easy for users to become addicted, resulting in serious illness and even death. Offering convenient options to help people safely remove leftover and expired medications from their homes has never been more important.

The DEA describes its efforts to combat the opioid epidemic using the acronym PETE, which stands for prevention, education, treatment, and enforcement. At Stericycle, we are focused on making drug disposal easier for the public by offering a suite of convenient and accessible solutions that remove unused drugs and support the prevention of drug misuse.

Waste360: Can you speak of the importance of drug take back options for the public?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: We know that convenient access to safe drug disposal is important, and convenience isn’t just a matter of only having to go a short distance. People are familiar and comfortable with places like pharmacies, and that’s where they prefer to return leftover medications.

If law enforcement offices are the only local drop off option right now, it’s important to make the area as comfortable and accessible to residents as possible.

Also, overall, it’s crucial organizations and communities continue to share the same consistent message to support drug take back, share the local options for disposal, and normalize drug take back in their communities.

The concept of drug take back, while becoming more common, is still relatively new to many Americans. This means education on behavior is important, but often when trying to change consumer behaviors we focus on telling them what not to do. And what they should do instead can get lost.

Stericycle data found nearly half of Americans (47 percent) have one to three bottles of leftover or unused prescriptions in their medicine cabinet. Furthermore, 29 percent of Americans have placed leftover/unused prescription drugs in the trash, and 26 percent have flushed them down the drain or toilet. These methods of improper drug disposal can negatively impact the environment and contaminate waterways.

We found 72 percent of Americans believe having a safe and secure way to dispose of leftover/unused prescription drugs would help combat the opioid epidemic, exemplifying the need for safe drug disposal. And 80 percent of Americans said if their local pharmacy retailer had a free prescription/over-the-counter medical drop-off kiosk they would use it to dispose of unused medications. However, 65 percent of Americans do not know if their pharmacy allows them to turn in used medications for free. So, again, education is important.

Waste360: How are jurisdictions addressing safe collection/disposal of drugs?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: States and cities are addressing the safe collection/disposal of drugs with drug take back events. We recently managed a drug take back event where all employees were required to wear facial coverings, maintain social distancing, regularly disinfect work surfaces, and wear gloves or use hand sanitizer if they removed their gloves for any reason. Residents participating in the event were required to stay in their vehicles. When we service a pharmacy, hospital, or law enforcement site, we follow similar safety procedures, including wearing appropriate PPE (e.g., face masks, gloves, etc.).

Waste360: Can you tell us about National Prescription Drug Take Back Day and what it’s accomplished so far?

Kristin Aldred Cheek: National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is an event hosted twice per year by the DEA where individuals can safely and conveniently dispose of leftover or expired medications. The event is designed to encourage proper drug disposal by making the process easy and anonymous.

The DEA has hosted 18 National Drug Take Back Days, with their most recent event in October 2019, involving nearly 5,000 law enforcement partners and 6,200 collection sites across the country. More than 400 tons of prescription drugs were collected during October 2019’s Take Back Day, bringing the total to more than 6,000 tons since the program started in 2010.

These events are held by different law enforcement agencies, such as local police departments, where take back boxes/kiosks are placed in convenient areas for the community. That agency is then responsible for the proper disposal of that waste. Since these events are tightly controlled there is no involvement from public entities. However, we support disposal where we are contracted to do so.  The next take back event is coming up. It will be October 24.




About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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