Maricha Ellis got her start in the waste industry in August 2015 as the director of marketing for Stericycle, Lake Forest, Illinois, where she quickly moved up to become the vice president of marketing and sales operations a year later. In December 2018, Ellis earned a Silver Stevie Award for Women in Business for her role in targeting the opioid crisis through Stericycle’s pharmaceutical TakeBack program, which aids organizations and consumers in safely returning unwanted or expired medication.

Waste Today talked with Ellis about her career, the opioid crisis and what more needs to be done to ensure safe pharmaceutical disposal.

Waste Today (WT): The opioid crisis continues to scourge communities across the country. How is Stericycle helping combat that via its TakeBack program and partnership with the National Safety Council (NSC)?

Maricha Ellis (ME): The opioid crisis is the most fatal drug epidemic in U.S. history. With opioid-related overdoses reaching an all-time high, the NSC partnered with us as the exclusive medication disposal partner of a provocative “Stop Everyday Killers” campaign. Our partnership launched in November 2017 in Chicago with the unveiling of an interactive art installation that included a wall made of medicine pills, each individually carved with images of the 22,000 people who died in 2017 due to prescription opioid overdoses.

To ease the process of returning unused pills and bring further awareness to this epidemic, Stericycle provided complimentary Seal&Send medication disposal envelopes to everyone who visited the memorial. Also, our TakeBack suite includes medication collection kiosks where consumers can go to dispose of unwanted drugs in a safe place within their communities, such as a hospital or pharmacy. In early 2016, Walgreens launched a safe medication disposal program, installing our kiosks at 600 stores.

WT: As vice president of marketing and sales operations, how do you raise awareness of these topics to move people to action?

ME: A big part of my job is helping promote our hazardous waste services. Our services are designed specifically to help companies of any size reduce their risk of noncompliance and safeguard people, brands and the environment. Ultimately, we want to help customers solve their problems.

WT: What did it mean to you to be recognized by the Stevie Awards?

ME: It was an honor to receive the recognition alongside such remarkable female leaders from across the globe. My award is truly a team award that I share with my colleagues at Stericycle who have worked on the TakeBack suite. My recognition marks a milestone for our nation’s progress toward creating safer, healthier communities.

WT: What more needs to be done to educate communities on safer drug collection practices?

ME: We need to continue addressing the issue and not shy away from difficult conversations. That starts with leaders, educators and parents within individual communities.

In 2019, Stericycle Environmental Solutions is looking to grow and continue several partnerships, such as our alliance with the NSC, that will help continue to educate consumers on the opioid crisis. Partnerships like these will help us get more envelopes and collection kiosks in front of consumers, which will lead to less opioids in our communities.

WT: Beyond prescription drugs, what are your other areas of focus when it comes to improving hazardous or special waste collection?

ME: Beyond prescription drugs, Stericycle is always working toward improving our waste collection services with our customers. Every year, we host annual customer advisory boards with our retail and municipal and industrial (M&I) customers to give us the chance to meet with some of the nation’s largest waste generators. This allows us to listen and learn from the generators we work with on how we can improve our services, including with hazardous waste collection.

We are also looking into hosting more collection days in communities, whether it’s a drug take-back day or a household hazardous waste event. Additionally, we’re prioritizing getting our customers access to more data and analytics—a challenge that’s becoming increasingly important to companies around the world—regarding their hazardous waste collection.