2010 Sustainability Champion: Colorado Medication Take-Back Pilot Project

You see them pile up in your medicine chest: old prescriptions that for one reason or another you didn’t use up entirely. Now that they’re long expired or that you no longer have a use for them, how do you safely get rid of them?

That’s a problem the state Department of Public Health and Environment aims to resolve through the Colorado Medication Take-back pilot project, the recipient of one of six 2010 Sustainability Champion Awards.

The awards are a program of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Environmental Partnership partnered, Connected Organizations for a Responsible Economy (CORE), and ColoradoBiz. The program is sponsored by PAETEC, a New York-based telecom company that delivers data and voice services in 84 metro markets including Denver.

The Colorado Medication Take-back pilot project kicked off in December and as of mid-February had already collected nearly 700 pounds of medication that would otherwise remain in households — where it poses a risk to children — or be dumped in toilets — where it poses to risks to wastewater treatment systems that don’t have the means to filter out the drugs.

The Department of Public Health and Environment provides management support for the program with funding from the Colorado Pollution Prevention Advisory Board, Denver Water, the Summit Water Quality Committee and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 8. King Soopers/City Market, Tri-County Health Department and Denver Health act as hosts for the project’s 10 collection boxes.

Organizers aimed to create a convenient way to dispose of the drugs and hope to expand the program statewide.

The response to the program has been immediate, said Greg Fabisiak, environmental integration manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Two months into the program, the state already had collected 70 survey response forms from drop-off locations, he said.

“A lot of information we collected from these survey cards suggest people have kept medications in their cabinets for a long period of time,” Fabisiak said. “A third of the people are saying they had them in their cabinet for at least five years. There seems that there was no good disposal option so people were really doing nothing and just leaving these medications around the house.”

Although organizers aim to keep the drugs out of the hands of toddlers and prevent accidental poisoning, the medications also are a temptation to teenagers, he said.

“Teenagers are very curious. And we’ve all heard the fact that teenagers if they can easily get a hold of something they may abuse it and get their friends to abuse. That’s not a good situation. … We think provide a means to dispose of them in an environmentally friendly manner and rid their homes of this potentially dangerous material at the same time.”

Environment: The detection of trace amounts of medication in wastewater treatment plant effluent and drinking water supplies has raised concerns about the potential impacts to ecosystems and human health. Within a month of the program’s start, 93 pounds of pharmaceuticals were collected.

Economy: Current waste systems are not designed to filter pharmaceutical wastes. Thus, the program could save taxpayer dollars by preventing the need for treatment facilities to be redesigned.

Society: Communities participating in the program include the city and county of Denver, the town of Castle Rock as well as some area hospitals and Rotary Clubs.
Innovation: Before the eight collection boxes were placed along the Front Range and in Summit County, organizers had to resolve such issues as liability, cost, regulations and how to transport the waste.

Education: Organizers aim to reach the entire state. How to fund the program so that it becomes sustainable is among the biggest challenges, Fabisiak said. “We want to see if we can put some sort of mechanism in place that would be acceptable to pharmacists in the state, the manufacturers who supply medications in the state and also the end user of the system, too. We want to make sure we can establish something that is convenient for public use. So we need to really get partnerships together here and start having some serious discussions on where we go from here.”

Find out more about the project.

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