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Can California Make Drug Manufacturers Pay for Take-back?

Alexis Petru
| Thursday March 13th, 2014 | 2 Comments

Prescription medicationLeftover prescription and over-the-counter drugs flushed down the toilet or tossed in the garbage can end up in oceans and waterways, polluting the environment and threatening human health. Cash-strapped jurisdictions across California have come up with a patchwork of programs to collect and safely dispose of these medications, but now one state senator is proposing a statewide solution with a more reliable funding source, introducing legislation that would require the pharmaceutical industry to finance and manage drug disposal across the Golden State.

Under Senate Bill 1014, drug manufacturers would be obligated to design, pay for and administer a statewide program to collect their products from consumers at no charge and to dispose of drugs by safe, environmentally responsible means. After submitting a stewardship plan describing their program model and plan of operation to state waste management agency CalRecycle for approval, drug makers would implement the program and report back to CalRecycle annually. CalRecycle would require a review and update to the stewardship plan every three years.

The bill, introduced by State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara), is modeled after similar industry-funded programs in Europe and Canada. For the past 15 years in parts of Canada, the pharmaceutical industry has paid for a successful initiative that collects unused medication in bins placed at local pharmacies.

These corporate-financed take-back programs are based on the principles of extended producer responsibility (EPR): a model of product stewardship that requires the manufacturers of a product to take responsibility for the environmental and social impacts of its product throughout the product’s lifecycle – from sourcing the material and production to consumer use and disposal. In addition to relieving governments and taxpayers from the high costs of product disposal, the ultimate goal of EPR is to motivate manufacturers to make their products in a more environmentally and socially responsible way because they are compelled to confront the externalities of their operations.

How will an EPR model of waste management achieve a more successful collection program for old drugs than the programs in place? While local governments have stepped up to plate to try to set up medication disposal options with their limited budgets, the supply of leftover drugs and demand for disposal options far exceeds the current infrastructure, Jackson said in a statement. There are only 305 disposal sites across the state to serve 38 million Californians.

SB 1014’s take-back program is expected to increase the amount of disposal sites for leftover medication and give every Californian access to drug disposal options — because the program wouldn’t rely on local governments’ scant resources to operate. Californians will be more likely to learn about a statewide program promoted by a corporate-financed outreach campaign than they are likely to find out about their city’s program – if one exists. According to a fact sheet produced by Jackson’s office, public surveys across Canada indicate a strong awareness and participation in the country’s pharmaceutical take-back program.

“[The California Product Stewardship Council] supports SB 1014 because the public is demanding that there be a statewide medicine collection program for a variety of reasons including public and environmental health, and the policy solution the bill offers is business friendly, cost-effective, convenient to the public and proven to work with over 15 years of operations in Canada,” said Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Will drug manufacturers embrace the proposed legislation? SB 1014 supporters say the bill is actually business-friendly, allowing the industry to design the collection program in the most efficient, cost-effective way to the companies, with only minimal oversight from state regulators.

But, despite paying for similar programs in Canada and Europe, drug makers will likely push back against SB 1014. Three pharmaceutical associations sued Alameda County when it passed a comparable ordinance requiring drug companies to set up a take-back program for its constituents. The county prevailed in trial court, and the case is now being considered by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

SB 1014 is sponsored by the California Product Stewardship Council, Clean Water Action, the California Alliance of Retired Americans, the City and County of San Francisco, and Alameda County. The bill will be heard by the state Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee at the end of the month before it moves to the Business and Professions Committee.

Image credit: Flickr/Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru


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  • freal

    There needs to be more than rules to solve problem and that should be a rock solid commitment to fix real problems. The state of Pennsylvania is a good example of how to blow away a good idea. Legislation was passed some time ago prohibiting electronic items (TV’s, computers, phones, printers, stereos, etc) from being put out in the trash and ultimately becoming a landfill problem. Great idea. Except that there’s hardly any place you can thane these items. So to avoid a significant fine one must become quite creative. Can you envision the local street-corner hot shot expanding his line of business saying I can sell you an ounce of grass or pills or some coke or I can take that TV of your hands?

  • jottman

    This is a massive problem. I am surprised this kind of initiative hasn’t been introduced much earlier. Perhaps it needs to be tackled on demand side as well: In the following blog post, I make a case that consumers should be able to fill prescriptions half way. How many half-bottles of unused pills are on your bathroom medicine cabinet shelves?

    http://www.wehatetowaste.com/a-creative-solution-to-prescription-drug-disposal/