San Francisco Extends Producer Responsibility to Pharmaceuticals

By Susan Hopp

There is a saying among keen, long-time observers of social and cultural change, “Everything starts in San Francisco!” In keeping with this sentiment, SF’s Board of Supervisors last week (12/14) set in motion a truly groundbreaking movement. The “Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance” passed the Board with a vote of 7 to 4.

The SDD ordinance calls for pharmaceutical companies to support, with funding, the costs of running a take-back program for proper (safe) disposal of unused over the counter and prescription (Rx) medicine and drugs. The spirit of the ordinance is not necessarily groundbreaking – Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws are not new. Thirty-nine states today have some kind of law, covering at least one genre of product, mandating the original producer of a product take responsibility for the end-of-life consequences of that product. Some of the most common cover electronics (PCs), printer cartridges, and tires. These products are visible for their toxic end of life waste. But pharmaceuticals have never been covered – before now.

Although not as visible, society is waking up to the deleterious harm of the drugs that fill our daily lives – as water pollutants and causes of social harm. Consider these statistics:

  • Rx growth grew 72% between 1997 and 2007 and today represents $225 billion annually.
  • Estimates are as high as 40% of Rx goes unused.
  • A U.S. Geological study showed 80% of streams tested had measurable concentrations of Rx and over the counter drugs.
  • 50% of all illicit drug use originates from the medicine cabinets of friends and family per the DEA.

Ironically, while in the USA, Pharma has vigorously resisted any overt end-of life responsibility, in other western nations, they provide funding for take-back (e.g., Spain, Portugal, France and Canada).

In the USA today, the responsibility falls with municipalities to deal with this problem. San Francisco, under the Department of the Environment has run a pilot mail take-back program for the last couple years. It has been very successful with (no charge to consumer) envelopes “flying off the shelf” and a 40% response rate to date. Other programs operate across the country. The State of Maine is the most successful where they have collected 2300 lbs of drugs (and over 380,000 pills) through a mail take-back program.

SF’s proposed mandate program is modeled after a British Columbia program funded by Pharma. Yet Supervisor Mirkarimi, preceding the vote stated “We looked at alternatives to the legislation but the Pharma consortium has not come together…and has fallen considerably short. In other states, they have spent millions to defeat (any legislation). Their reaction has been (to show) the same ferocity to object and attempt to block…” The Mayor must still sign the ordinance or he could choose to veto. There is considerable uncertainty – the current Mayor’s transition to Lieutenant Governor means he may not be Mayor at the January 4, 2011 meeting. And lawsuits challenging the ordinance will likely ensue. Nevertheless, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, by voting to pass the ordinance, can be congratulated for daring to insist that Pharma come to the table and participate in this collective problem. After all, should civil society bear the sole responsibility of the costs of uRx in the waste stream? With municipal budgets breaking, isn’t it about time Pharma assume producer responsibility?

Susan Hopp is a recent graduate of the Presidio Graduate School of Sustainable Management and is currently developing a business around uRx waste diversion.

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2 responses

    1. Very interesting article. I hope that this comes into the consciousness of many more people soon, as the impact of this will surely reach decades into Earth’s future.

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