Just as our team at Waste Today was putting the finishing touches on this issue, the news broke that California Gov. Jerry Brown had signed SB 212 into law. The law puts the onus on manufacturers of sharps, prescriptions and over-the-counter medications to ensure there are safe and convenient take-back options in the state for drugs and needles. The law makes California the first state in the nation to establish a comprehensive, producer-funded take-back program.
CalRecycle estimates that California residents use 936 million sharps a year in the state, with 31 percent of this waste ending up in the trash. Another study by the University of Massachusetts Lowell estimates that 7 percent of needles used in the United States are flushed down the toilet. These improper methods of disposal can be especially dangerous to waste workers. According to a recent study by the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (EREF), 4 percent of material recovery facility workers are stuck by needles each year while doing their job.
Old medications present a different problem. Leftover drugs and a lack of safe and convenient disposal options have been linked to opioid abuse, accidental poisonings and environmental damage caused by pharmaceuticals being flushed down the toilet or thrown away, which can taint water supplies and lead to groundwater leaching.
While drug disposal sites already exist in California, there are currently only 489 locations serving 39 million residents—making access to these sites difficult for many residents. Additionally, these take-back sites are financed by local governments, putting the financial responsibility of waste disposal ultimately on California taxpayers.
Under the new law, producers are responsible for ensuring the availability of convenient disposal options for home-generated pharmaceutical drugs and sharps waste, reimbursing local governments for needles they collect and dispose, and providing take-back bins for medications to any legal location that asks for one within 90 days, among other obligations.
On a smaller scale, the signing of SB 212 is a big win for the residents of California. On a larger scale, the law’s passing begs the bigger question: Who is ultimately responsible for making sure the items we use every day are able to be effectively discarded?
If producers of sharps and medications are responsible for creating channels for proper disposal, what level of culpability do manufacturers of difficult-to-recycle plastic bags, film and straws have for the items they produce? Similarly, should manufacturers of smartphones, tablets and other devices that use lithium-ion batteries be required to be part of the solution for safe disposal as well?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, or who should preside over the solutions. I do know one thing, though: Whether it’s something as simple as cooking dinner or as complex as managing a waste stream, most people are much more cognizant of the mess they make when they’re responsible for the cleanup.