Zero Waste Push Aided by Rise in Drug Take-Back Programs

Elizabeth McGowan, Reporter

August 3, 2015

4 Min Read
Zero Waste Push Aided by Rise in Drug Take-Back Programs

Progressive cities such as Oakland, Seattle and San Francisco clearly have a tough slog in achieving zero-waste targets.

But the task became a bit less formidable a few months ago when the U.S. Supreme Court let stand local ordinances requiring drug companies to fund the collection and safe disposal of pharmaceuticals.

For instance, through June 30, San Francisco has collected almost 29 tons of unwanted and expired medicines since its pilot program began in April 2012. And that weight will grow significantly when a permanent and expanded industry program launches in late 2016, says Maggie Johnson, of the city’s Department of Environment.

Johnson, senior residential toxics reduction coordinator, isn’t the only one cheering the Supreme Court’s late May decision to ignore a challenge from drug industry trade groups. Folks at Recology, the major waste hauler for the city and county of San Francisco, are also celebrating.

“We’re all for anything that promotes a cleaner environment and worker safety,” says Paul Giusti, Recology’s manager for government and community relations. “ I know that telling people to throw pharmaceuticals in the trash isn’t the right end-game.”

In addition to worker safety, one of Giusti’s chief concerns is that pharmaceuticals mistakenly left in the residential wastestream could contaminate one of San Francisco’s prides and joys—certified organic compost.

Organizations such as the Sacramento-based California Product Stewardship Council are adamant that it’s incumbent on drug manufacturers, not local governments, to operate and pay for collection initiatives. They have long maintained that the lack of safe, convenient programs can lead to waterway pollution, accidental poisonings or drug abuse.

“There’s no way to get to zero waste if manufacturers keep designing things that aren’t part of the circular economy,” says Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California PSC. “Nobody is trying to buy old pills. There’s no market for these.”

In July 2012, Sanborn’s organization helped shepherd the nation’s first take-back program into existence in Alameda County, where Oakland is the county seat. Since then, ordinances have cropped up in San Francisco, the California counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara, and in Washington state’s King County, where Seattle is. Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and other communities are considering similar moves.

Like San Francisco, Alameda County has had a longstanding, government-funded collection program that local officials couldn’t expand because of money shortages, Sanborn says. Numbers from the county’s site reveal that 473 pounds of drugs were collected at 10 sites in 2009. That jumped to 13,919 pounds from 31 sites in 2013.

“We’re thrilled that Alameda County was willing to go to bat and defend this all the way to the Supreme Court,” Sanborn says. “It was very brave for local officials to take this on.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) joined two other trade associations in challenging the constitutionality of Alameda County’s ordinance. They argued that it violated the dormant Commerce Clause because it interfered with interstate commerce. In fall 2014, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld the ordinance in a 3-0 vote, saying it “neither discriminates against nor directly regulates interstate commerce.”

PhRMA spokeswoman Priscilla VanderVeer says “there is no rationale for mandating new, costly and redundant take-back programs when voluntary in-home disposal has repeatedly been shown to be effective, ecologically sustainable, secure, more convenient and less costly for patients.”

In an e-mail response to questions from Waste360, VanderVeer explains that a coalition of pharmaceutical companies is negotiating with Alameda County officials on compliance details for the ordinance.

Though VanderVeer could not put a price tag on Alameda County’s take-back program, she points out that it “will unquestionably add costs, with little in the way of positive impact.” She adds that it “ignores the issues that lead to leftover medicine in the first place, including educating patients about adherence and compliance to their physician’s prescribing instructions.”

Mandated take-back programs place a far greater burden on the environment because individuals have to travel to drop-off sites and somebody has to pick up and dispose of those drugs, VanderVeer says.

No matter where leftover medicine is collected, it has to go to a landfill because it isn’t recyclable, she says. She adds that PhRMA advocates following Food and Drug Administration guidelines for in-home disposal. Those call for mixing drugs with coffee grounds or kitty litter and placing them in a sealed container before depositing them in a trash bin.

Allowing the ordinances to stand is a game-changer on the solid waste front, Sanborn says, because it gives local governments the ability to control the end-of-life fate of products sold within their borders.

“Counties get it that this is a big deal, she says. “The floodgates just opened.”

“Do we think it’s great to have every county in the country writing its own legislation?” Sanborn asks rhetorically. “No, we don’t. But this is what it comes to when we can’t get any legislation at the state or federal level.”

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth McGowan

Reporter, Waste360

Elizabeth H. McGowan, an award-winning energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C., writes a weekly Industry Buzz article for Waste360. She was the D.C. correspondent for Crain Communications' Waste & Recycling News, and has written for numerous other publications since beginning her career at daily newspapers in Wisconsin. In 2013, she won the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category for an investigative series published in InsideClimate News that revealed how the nation’s oil pipeline infrastructure isn’t measuring up to federal safety standards.

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