Is pioneering prescription drug takeback law the right cure?

Is pioneering prescription drug takeback law the right cure?

Officials in Alameda County, California are breaking new ground when it comes to the environmentally safe disposal of all those old drugs gathering dust in your medicine cabinet.

The county has unanimously passed a policy -- the first in the nation by a local government -- requiring pharmaceutical companies to pay for the collection and disposal of unused and expired medications.

“I am proud that we’ve found a more sustainable policy solution that promotes good will and corporate social responsibility,” said Nate Miley, president of the county’s board of supervisors in a prepared statement.  “The community’s growing demand for more permanent and convenient medication disposal sites goes far beyond what the County can fund and operate on its own.”

There's been growing concern over the improper disposal of prescription drugs. Along with worries about their illicit use, residues from these medications are finding their way into landfills and water tables. "Most drugs are not completely absorbed or metabolized by the body," said environmental assessment expert Raanan Bloom on the FDA's web site, "and enter the environment after passing through waste water treatment plants."

Alameda county currently has 28 sites where residents can drop off their old and unwanted prescription drugs -- at an estimated local government cost of about $330,000 per year. County officials estimate their program would add about one cent for every $33 of meds sold.

The county’s program is getting strong support from other communities in the Bay Area. “This ordinance is the low hanging fruit that gives us something that we can do now to help avoid medication waste from getting into our environment at the source,’’ said Andria Ventura, Program Manager at Clean Water Action in San Francisco. “It makes financial, environmental and social sense.”

Photo of pills by PhotoStock10 via Shutterstock.

There's growing interest across the nation regarding prescription drug take-back programs. Pennsylvania’s House recently introduced a bill that, if passed, would create a state-wide pharmaceutical disposal program similar to the Alameda's.

According to the Washington state group “Take Back Your Meds”, there are temporary take-back programs in nearly half of Washington’s counties -- and nearly 90,000 pounds of drugs have been collected and safely disposed of in just six of those counties over the past several years.

In upstate New York, the Wegmans grocery chain has partnered with county-level environmental offices for the environmentally friendly disposal of unwanted and expired pharmaceuticals.

And this past April, as part of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, three drop-off sites in Sedgwick County, Kansas collected close to 900 pounds of prescription drugs. “It’s turned out really well,” said Sergeant Scott Plummer with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office. “We had people showing up early to drop things off; they wish we could do it more often. People, they want to dispose of [these medications] the right way, so it’s not being flushed down the toilet and contaminating the ground water. They’re trying to do the right thing and protect the environment at the same time.” Plummer believes a local drug turn-in program like the one in Alameda could work in his community if demand continues to rise and if local disposal faculties were in place.

But there’s been pushback from the drug industry. In a statement emailed to GreenBiz, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) described the Alameda County ordinance as "confusing, duplicative and unnecessarily burdensome on both patients and the environment when clear, safe home disposal methods are already available."

PhRMA points to the financial resources needed to divert, transport and incinerate unwanted medicines in compliance with federal regulations, and calls attempts to fund non-law enforcement drug collection programs "premature."

"Additionally, America’s biopharmaceutical industry is heavily invested in integrating ‘green chemistry’ principles into the design, development and manufacturing of medicines to reduce or eliminate environmental impact.," said PhRMA senior vice president Matt Bennett.

But county officials dismiss such criticism. Kamika Dunlap, policy assistant with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, said they've been told their drug take-back program is taking a patchwork approach to the problem. "Then pass it at state level," she said."[Drug industry representatives] said they don’t necessarily believe that the costs should just fall on them as the producer. What we have said is they have the biggest economic stake in all of this, to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their product. We already have similar programs in place for ink cartridges and batteries."

And as the debate continues, people are working on ways to get one more round of usage out of these expired drugs. Several years ago, a Milwaukee-based group said it had incinerated of 6.5 million pounds of prescription drugs -- sent from pharmacies and manufacturers around the U.S. -- while creating enough energy to power more than 220 homes for a year.