Contamination from Pharmaceutical Disposal: Who Should Pay?

Following up on yesterday’s post, where I talked about a law in San Francisco that attempts to minimize the external costs of fast/junk food and that has met with staunch rebukes from the GOP, there is another measure in front of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that equally makes Republicans and the companies that fund them nervous. It revolves around the externalized cost of end-of-life disposal for unused pharmaceutical drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry currently has no legal requirement to take back drugs when they pass their expiration dates or are no longer useful for other reasons. As a result, one of two things happens: the drugs are improperly disposed of and end up in waterways and even drinking water, affecting human health in a wide variety of ways, or the taxpayer pays for proper disposal of the drugs. In the former case, some of the most common effects result from hormone-mimicking compounds that can affect our sexuality, reproduction, and general health. The endocrine disruption caused by hormone mimics was covered in great detail by scientists in the book Our Stolen Future. The end product in many cases of this type of pollution is wildlife populations that have lost the ability to reproduce, either because penises were greatly shrunken in male offspring (Florida alligators), or homosexual behavior was witnessed and documented for the first time ever in bird populations that mate for life with one partner (Great Lakes water birds).

Either way, the pharmaceutical companies get away with an externalized cost that helps them keep their margins healthy. The new measure, if passed, would require pharmaceutical companies to pay for disposal of their unused medications. This is a terrifying concept for pharmaceutical companies, and their knee jerk response has been predictable. “We are asking for the pharmaceutical industry to wise up and be a good corporate partner, to be a good neighbor,” said Democratic San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. Drug companies responded that the grand majority of drugs in the water supply are actually from human secretions, not from drugs being flushed down the toilet or thrown in the trash.

Studies cited by Marjaneh Zarrehparvar, manager of the department’s hazardous waste program, show that landfills leach everything from painkillers to steroids to antidepressants. In all likelihood, the rate of infection of drinking water would be much higher when those pharmaceuticals are flushed down a toilet or poured into a sink and thereby sent directly to wastewater treatment plants.

End-of-life disposal is a key externality that companies often don’t have to pay for. In this case, the cost is borne by taxpayers when pharmaceutical take-back programs are put in place by municipalities. And, of course, the cost is borne by people exposed to high levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals that have dissolved from pharmaceutical products. Drug companies counter that the extra regulation would just mean higher prices passed on to the customer.

How much would it actually cost? “All we’re asking for,” said Mirkarimi, “is a bucket with a lid that is regulated so that people can have a controlled environment to bring back their medications to dispose of prudently–that’s it.”

Response by San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd was typical of shortsighted policymakers everywhere who would like to keep externalities off the balance sheet of polluting industries. Elsbernd called SF’s program another example of “the long arm of San Francisco” trying to solve a national problem, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

It is my firm belief that policies like this, which help make large polluters accountable, are exactly why the Republican party and other conservative politicians can count on large contributions from oil, gas, coal, pharmaceutical, and other industries that continue to rely on lax regulations that help them keep costs off their balance sheet–and make them the burden of the taxpayer, the general public, the individual…

Why not a creative solution? That bucket Mirkarimi is asking for? Why not put a Viagra ad on it and post it up for safe disposal at every pharmacy? Call it a marketing expense, and all of a sudden, you’ll watch pharmaceutical companies line up to internalize those external costs and become good corporate citizens. Taxpayers stop paying for what should rightfully be the pharmaceutical companies’ costs, and people get lower exposure to chemicals in their food and drinking water.



Scott Cooney is author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill), which he is giving away for free on his website through the holidays, and Principal of

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Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

2 responses

  1. Scott:

    Thanks for the interesting posting. Instead of assigning blame and trying to determine who should pay, I would encourage you to become part of the solution. From my perspective, this is part of the problem with the U.S. environmental community. This is an incredibly complex issue and coming up with simplistic “win-win-win” solutions as you have done really does not help.

    Medication therapy is a foundation of western medicine and we all have benefited from taking medications. There are many contributing factors to this situationo and instead of just pointing the finger at PhRMA, I would encourage you to explore soltuions that involve them like what my agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done. We are working in collaboration with PhRMA and the American Pharmacists Association to promote the least environmentally-harmful disposal guidance to consumers. Known as SMARxT Disposal, I would encourage you to check ou the campaign website at Keep in mind, that because of the complexity, the guidance we provide should be considered interim guidance until collectively, the government, the industry and the profession can find out more sustainable ways to dispose of old or unwanted medications. The bottom line with this issue is that it underscores the fact that everything we do creates an environmental impact. It just so happens that the cumulative affect of all of our environmental impacts over time are starting to show up on a global level – this is a problem.

    Thanks again for your posting.

    Joe Starinchak

  2. Hi Joe,
    You mention you’re working in collaboration with pharma, but don’t describe why you working with them is any different than the win-win-win solution I proposed that you dismiss so easily. You mention we shouldn’t point fingers but then you point the finger at the environmental community, which seems a little hypocritical, no? The problem exists, it’s an external cost of an industry that is borne both financially and health-wise by the general public…why shouldn’t they pay for it?


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