Pharmaceuticals are an essential component of our healthcare system. They save lives and improve quality of life for many of us. Yet, as the number of prescriptions written increases, so too do the problems related to unwanted pharmaceuticals in the home.
Allowing unwanted pharmaceuticals to accumulate in homes increases the likelihood of accidental overdose, illegal diversion, and environmental contamination. It’s time to commit to a solution that works.
The Take Back Solution
Take-back programs provide a safe way for people to remove unwanted medications from their homes.
Existing take-back programs vary widely as to how they are organized and funded. Many happen only a couple days each year. Some local law enforcement agencies have installed permanent drop boxes in their buildings. With the recent withdrawal of federal DEA support, many programs are struggling to find funding to continue this important public service.
A new federal rule for the disposal of unwanted controlled substances allows pharmacies to run their own take-back programs, a convenient option for consumers. However, the new DEA rule does not provide any funding to make participation easier.
Both law enforcement and pharmacy-based take-back programs are severely limited by a lack of consistent funding. While voluntary take-backs are a step in the right direction, these programs simply aren’t enough.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), also known as product stewardship, describes a system where the life cycle costs of a product become part of the cost of manufacturing. EPR is a proven method to sustainably fund the recycling or disposal of fluorescent lights, mercury thermostats, paint, mattresses, household batteries, and other products.
Why, then, is EPR the best solution for pharmaceuticals?
EPR is already being successfully implemented for pharmaceuticals in many European countries as well as some Canadian Provinces. In British Columbia (BC), for instance, 97.5% of pharmacies participate in a drug take-back program due to a solid EPR foundation. These locations collected a total of 112,888 pounds of pharmaceuticals in one year alone, equaling out to 0.02 pounds of meds collected per person. For comparison, Oregon, a state with a similar population but without an EPR program, collected only 0.004 pounds of meds per person in one year, a rate five times lower than British Columbia’s.
A coordinated EPR approach lowers collection and disposal costs per pound. The pharmaceutical EPR program in France, for example, collects an average of 16,237 tons per year, at a cost of just $0.0022 per box. Funded entirely by pharmaceutical manufacturers and run by the non-profit group Cyclamed, this French program is highly effective in collecting unwanted pharmaceuticals. In a recent survey, 77% of French residents claimed to have disposed of unwanted medication via these take-back sites, while 70% said they “always” dispose of pharmaceuticals in this way.
Unlike the current patchwork of funding used by U.S. programs, an EPR program provides secure, long-term funding. The aforementioned program in British Columbia started their mandatory Medications Return Program in 1996 with a program revamp in 2004. The pharmaceutical industry, therefore, has been funding the entire cost of the program for over 19 years.
4. Ready to Go
Momentum is growing: Alameda County, CA; King County, WA; and San Francisco, CA have all adopted EPR laws. Despite having been willing EPR partners in other countries, pharmaceutical manufacturers have challenged the Alameda law in court. Considering the narrow grounds of the appeal and improvements made to subsequent iterations of the law, other communities will soon be passing pharmaceutical EPR laws.
Please consider promoting an EPR bill in your county or state. Each new EPR law brings us one step closer to a national program.
Ed Gottlieb is the Chair of the Coalition for Safe Medication Disposal in Tompkins County, NY. Ed can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.