Last updated on October 30, 2019
As Americans’ use of prescription medications increases – a 2017 study found that 55% of the population regularly takes a prescription drug – safe disposal of unused medication is becoming a more challenging and urgent issue. Educating the public about the risks of improper disposal and offering safe options can protect communities and the environment.
It’s important to use the safest disposal and treatment method available, based on the specific waste stream. For example, most types of medical wastes (sharps and items contaminated with body fluids) are treated by high-heat steam sterilization (autoclave). However, when it comes to the destruction of drugs, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites incineration as the safest, most effective disposal method for unused pharmaceuticals.
High-temperature incineration meets the DEA requirement that drugs, when disposed of, must be rendered non-retrievable. Non-retrievable means the destruction method must “permanently alter the substance’s physical or chemical condition or state through irreversible means and thereby render the substance unavailable and unusable for all practical purposes.”
Unlike sewer or trash disposal, the by-products of a high-temperature pharmaceutical incineration process consist mainly of carbon dioxide and water. Any inorganic residue is stabilized before disposal. This careful handling, treatment, and disposal limit the environmental concerns that improperly disposed of pharmaceutical waste can pose to our communities, water supplies, and wildlife. It’s also important to note that according to the EPA, incineration is the “Best Demonstrated Available Technology” (BDAT) for the complete destruction of pharmaceuticals.
New Classes of Drugs Require Careful Disposal
Many new pharmaceutical classes show great promise in treating serious illnesses. However, the complex nature of their chemical composition presents a challenge. The amino acid, peptide, and organic synthesis processes create more diverse chemical products that are harder to break down for safe disposal. In order to completely break down these new drugs, it is imperative to utilize a method that is proven, such as incineration, unlike other methods of pharmaceutical waste treatment and home disposal methods.
The Dangers of Improper Disposal of Unused Pharmaceuticals
Whether new drug classes or conventional, established drugs, all can be dangerous if they fall into the wrong hands or are dumped in the wrong places.
- Household trash disposal risks exposing the community to potentially addictive and/or lethal pharmaceuticals.
- Landfill disposal carries risks of water and soil contamination.
- Water disposal, by either flushing or rinsing drugs into the sanitary sewer system, can contaminate water
Proven EPA- and DEA-Compliant Collection Options
Our MedSafe collection receptacles meet DEA requirements and are placed in convenient locations, such as hospitals, retail pharmacies, long-term care, and other facilities for consumers to drop off their unused medications. Consumers without access to a MedSafe kiosk can safely dispose of unused medications right from home using a Sharps TakeAway Medication Recovery System envelope. These drugs never end up in landfills or our water supplies.
Drugs collected in the DEA-, USPS-, and DOT-compliant MedSafe and TakeAway Medication Recovery systems are delivered to Sharps where they are destroyed using the treatment method know to completely render them non-retrievable, as required by DEA.
How High-Temperature Incineration Works
To some people, the word “incineration” creates a mental image of giant smokestacks belching toxic black smoke. That is an inaccurate description of safe pharmaceutical incineration! High-heat temperature incineration turns waste materials into ash, flue gas, and heat. Waste incinerators in the United States are regulated by the EPA, other federal agencies, and various state and local regulatory bodies.
High-temperature incinerators operate at extremely high temperatures – between 1600 and 1800 degrees in their primary combustion chamber. That intense heat degrades organic material into hot gasses. These gases pass into the incinerator’s secondary combustion chamber, where additional fuel is added to raise the temperature to 2000 degrees. This step breaks the chemical bonds in the gases into atoms, which then recombine with oxygen to form stable, non-hazardous compounds.
Incineration is the only reliable, scientifically-proven way to break chemical bonds in the drugs and render them harmless. Inorganic materials, not converted to gas in the primary combustion chamber, end up as ash and are disposed of according to strict regulations in a specially designated landfill.
For a more detailed description of this procedure, review our white paper: “The Need to Incinerate Discarded Pharmaceuticals.”
The Benefits Are Clear
- Safety: Use of Sharps’ pharmaceutical disposal systems reduces the risk that someone will gain access to discarded/unused drugs located in households. A significant percentage of opioid abusers get their pills from friends and relatives.
- Efficiency: Many incinerators used by cities are not equipped for pharmaceutical destruction, and cash-strapped local governments don’t have the funds to retrofit or build new ones. Instead, it’s more efficient to collect consumer drugs through take-back and mail-back programs and have them destroyed at a permitted high-temperature incinerator.
- Cost-effective: Medicine take-back programs (including MedSafe and TakeAway Medication Recovery systems) are much less expensive per pound of collected medicines than the consumer household-drug disposal products that end up in landfills discussed in Part 1 of this article.
Finding the safest pharmaceutical waste disposal options that also protect our land and water can seem complex and confusing. However, with the opioid crisis and environmental concerns affecting all of us today, proper disposal is one way we can do our part.