Sustainability Academy’s cash flow problem complicates drug drop box program.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
The idea sounds simple enough: Give people an easy way to dispose of their unwanted meds, and they’ll stop tossing them in the toilet (which pollutes the groundwater) or in the trash (where they can be fished out by someone who wants to get high).
“We wanted to make it as easy to put [pharmaceuticals] to rest as it is to get them,” says Michael Waxer, vice president of Carmel Development Company.
Waxer is part of an ad hoc committee, representing a range of local stakeholders, that has developed a safer alternative: pharmaceutical drop boxes in the lobbies of local police stations. Because police already send drugs for destruction at incineration facilities, a coordinated regional effort could even save money, they reasoned.
With countywide interest in the idea, The Sustainability Academy offered to take the lead. Several of the participating agencies donated a seed fund of about $11,000 for the Monterey-based nonprofit to take care of administrative tasks like getting U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency approval, designing the bins and marketing the program. A TSA intern developed a budget and began looking into grant funding.
Then the nonprofit hit an economic wall. On Aug. 18 the TSA board, which includes Waxer, sent supporters an email announcing they’d laid off their executive director, Jennifer Ramras Sardina, and were “restructuring.”
“We were headed in a negative cash flow direction,” Waxer says.
Nobody is quite sure if the $11,000 is still in TSA’s bank account; Waxer says the board won’t know until it sorts through its files.
But his colleagues on the drop box committee are waiting for an answer. “I’m sure we’re going to talk about that very soon,” says Karen Harris, spokeswoman for the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency. “We have to regroup and try to get this going again.”
The pharmaceutical pollution problem begins when people flush their unwanted meds down the toilet. From there, it seeps out of perforated wastewater pipes and into the groundwater that supplies people on septic tanks, like many residents of unincorporated Carmel Valley.
Tossing old meds into the trash is legal, but gets dicey when it comes to controlled substances like narcotic painkillers, opiates and amphetamines. Monterey Regional Waste Management District spokesman Jeff Lindenthal recommends mixing them with coffee or sugar to deter people from rooting for them in the trash. “Controlled substances is a big gray area,” he says.
At least 15 local pharmacies offer to take back unwanted meds, but that doesn’t always apply to the controlled stuff, which Waxer says must be disposed of in protective custody and under armed guard because of their high after-market value.
As it stands, each local law enforcement agency destroys drugs on its own. Prescription meds in the county’s evidence room are sent to the coroner’s division, where they’re handled as biohazardous waste and sent for incineration at Stericycle in Hollister, according to Victor Lurz, the sheriff’s crime lab supervisor. The Monterey Police Department, which independently launched its own medicine drop-off program, escorts its combined stash of legal and illegal drugs to a Covanta incinerator in Crow’s Landing once a year.
“We have to see that it gets into the incinerator and bursts into flames, all that good stuff,” Deputy Chief Phil Penko says.
A money-saving regional approach – a heavily badged carpool of sorts – makes sense to him: “It’s an idea worthy of exploration.”