With ever-changing recycling guidelines, it’s difficult for our residents to keep up with what can and cannot be recycled. As my fellow professionals in the solid waste and recycling field will attest, we receive tons of great questions from the public about recycling. Can this plastic item go in the recycling cart? Is this container compostable? What can I do with my old television set? Can I throw this fluorescent bulb in the garbage? As solid waste and recycling experts, we’re here to answer those questions by steering our residents to our well-established and sustainable programs that collect and process regular curbside recyclables, compostable materials, electronic waste, and, coming soon in Washington State, even mercury-containing light bulbs and tubes.
But, whenever we get the question about what a resident should do with his or her leftover medications, the waters get muddied. In the past, residents have been instructed to dispose of their leftover drugs by flushing them down the toilet into the sewer system. Another word of advice has been to encourage people to disguise the medications in a nondescript container and toss them in the garbage. Unfortunately, research has shown that traces of medications have been found in water discharged into our waterways from sewer treatment plants and treated landfill leachate, thereby refuting the wisdom of these common drug disposal practices. There is also a growing concern about of trace levels of drugs being detected in our municipal water supply.
Of an even more critical concern is the fact that our leftover medications, particularly prescription pain killers, are ending up in the wrong hands. According to the King County Board of Health Staff Report (May 17, 2012) and its sources, “Drug overdoses have surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths in Washington. The majority of overdoses involve prescription opiates.” The report asserts that our children are particularly affected by citing that “. . . 7 of 10 deaths of children aged 10-17 years were due to a drug or multiple drugs, with 86% involving prescription drug and 29% involving over-the-counter drugs” in 2008-2010. Worse yet, “. . . more than three out of five teens say prescription pain relievers are easy to get from parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets.”
The abuse of prescription pain killers can also lead to the use of increasingly pure street drugs such as heroin as the user can no longer afford the expensive prescription medications. According to the NovusDetox.com website, powerful pain killers such as Oxycontin sell on the street for about $1.15 per milligram and addicts will typically use between 80 to 400 milligrams per day. If an addict, for example, uses 120 milligrams of Oxycontin per day, the daily cost to maintain his habit will be around $140. If forced to turn to nearly pure heroin as a more affordable alternative, the cost for the same high will be around $10 per day. “According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, because of the competition from OxyContin and other legal heroin alternatives, the purity of heroin has increased from 20% to 60% to 80%. In many areas, heroin is easier to obtain and much less expensive. Heroin is often cheaper than marijuana. In Chicago, a “dime bag,” which contains 10 to 12 doses of 60 percent pure heroin, costs just $10. Much less expensive than OxyContin.”
So what’s the answer? Right now there are a limited number of volunteer, ongoing collection sites in King County at pharmacies such as Bartell Drugs and Group Health and at nine local police departments (including at the Kirkland Justice Center!). There are a larger number of law enforcement agencies, including your Kirkland Police Department, that participate in the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s semi-annual Prescription Drug Take Back Days. Unfortunately, that’s about it for safe and convenient disposal options in King County.
And it’s not that some of your lawmakers haven’t been trying to get a state-wide program established. Building upon the momentum of the overwhelmingly successful E-Cycle Washington Program passed by the State Legislature in 2006 and implemented in 2009, lawmakers tried and failed to get a similarly structured, producer-funded secure medicine return program enacted each legislative session between 2009 and 2012. The legislation failed on each occasion even though the bills were supported by a broad array of special interests from law enforcement to professionals involved in public health and substance abuse prevention to local governments like the City of Kirkland. Each year the proposed legislation was aggressively opposed by the pharmaceutical lobby and each year it was killed by an overdose of misinformation, partisan politics, and, frankly, an abundant lack of common sense.
Fortunately not all is lost. The King County Board of Health has taken up the effort to establish a producer-funded and -operated drug take-back program in King County. The draft proposed Rule and Regulation would establish a system to properly and safely dispose of unused medicines within King County, with standards to ensure that all parts of the county are adequately served.