Skip to Main Content

There are countless unwanted pills and syringes in households across the country, but it takes money to safely dispose of these medicines, and the pharmaceutical industry is trying to avoid picking up the tab.

The resistance comes as the state of Massachusetts and local governments in California and Washington have passed laws that require drug makers to finance take-back programs for unused prescription medicines — driven in part by worries about leftover prescription painkillers getting into the wrong hands.

So far, the political pressure has been relatively contained. But still more cities, counties, and even federal lawmakers are pursuing similar laws. And with momentum growing for these initiatives, drug makers are worried about their bottom lines.


They ought to dispose of such concerns.

Although costs can vary depending upon regional factors, take-back programs are estimated to cost about one cent for every $10 in sales, according to the Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit environmental policy group that supports drug take-back programs.


In Alameda County, Calif., which launched the first take-back ordinance last year and has become a model for other local governments, officials have estimated the cost at roughly $330,000 a year on product sales of $930 million (although a pharmaceutical industry trade group pegged the price higher, saying it could reach $1.2 million annually).

Zoom out to the rest of the country, and such expenses can add up — especially if, as drug makers predict, these kinds of drug remediation programs become more common nationwide.

The pharmaceutical industry has adopted a range of tactics to avoid having to pick up the tab.

Trade groups initially tried for a legal dodge, but last year the US Supreme Court refused to hear the industry’s objections. So now drug companies have taken to lobbying at the local level to block take-back programs.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association started calling residents warning them that a proposed drug take-back program would increase local taxes — even when it would be drug makers on the hook.

The group, which represents companies that sell over-the-counter drugs, provided form letters outlining its complaints for people to mail to the county supervisor. “All I had to do was sign it and send it in,” said Carol Royce-Wilder, a photographer in Los Angeles. “I was led to believe it was about consumer rights. It was very misleading.”

In an interview, a spokeswoman for the association did not address the letter-writing campaign, but argued that the county legislation would create “an expensive, inefficient, unworkable, and ineffective program” and “do little to accomplish the goals the county is seeking to resolve.” [UPDATE: A week later, the trade group denied suggesting local taxes would increase].

Meanwhile, several industry trade groups are supporting a bill in the California state assembly that would require local governments to, instead, adopt a state-run — and state-financed — take-back program. In effect, this could block cities and counties from seeking industry funding.

The industry groups have offered to contribute $5 million over five years to a nonprofit entity for educating consumers about disposal. What is meant by consumer education, however, is up for interpretation.

In 2014, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the largest such trade group in the country, launched a website called “My Old Meds” that recommends unused drugs should be placed with cat litter, sawdust, or coffee grinds in plastic bags and then tossed in the trash.

This disposal strategy, PhRMA claims, is a more environmentally friendly option than flushing pills down the toilet, and it makes the meds less palatable for would-be drug abusers. But the Product Stewardship Institute maintains this approach should generally be reserved as a last resort, and the US Food and Drug Administration recommends it only when a take-back program is not available.

A PhRMA spokeswoman said that consumers need options: “Most people don’t know what to do at all.”

It’s understandable that industry is pushing back. Drug makers have a responsibility to their shareholders, which means they must reduce or at least minimize costs. But the companies also have social responsibilities that include protecting the environment and thwarting further drug abuse.

The pharmaceutical industry might want to consider balancing these objectives and take back its objections.

This weekly column offers opinions on the latest pharmaceutical industry news.

  • It’s bad enough that many drugs are not fully metabolized by the human body, which means that they go directly into the sewer system and are not removed before being dumped into the rivers, oceans or ground water. BUT, for the pharmacies who distribute them to fail to accept the unused portions for recycling or proper disposal IS INSANE!

  • My family lived in Switzerland which has one of the highest rates of recycling in the world. You return medicines to the pharmacies for recycling. You take light bulbs & batteries to store recycling containers. It’s as easy to use as a library drop-box. There are even locations for textile recycling. Does big pharma really want to self-inflict more “brand damage” by opposing programs which work well in Europe & where drug prices are lower?

  • Not that I have any particular love of pharma companies, but my first thought was, “Do any other companies pay for disposal of *their* unused products?” They might — there could be a tax on, say, battery manufacturers. (And I know I pay a $1 fee/tax to dispose of used motor oil.)

    But if we’re going to ask them to pay for disposal, we should be fair about it. We should consider what other manufacturers, if any, should pay for disposal of their products.

    • There are recycling programs and they come in different forms. Finished consumer goods get sold at discounted prices. Products that are used to produce other finished goods can be recycled.

      There are non-profit organizations that collect drugs for reuse. Like pharma products many other formulated products get sorted and are reused. However, pharma are unique as they are disease specific. Thus pose their unique challenges because of their toxicity.

  • Pharma take back and properly dispose the toxins they sell to cure disease would be a challenge especially to generics who are foreign companies. If the companies take the unused drugs back, the cost would be passed on one way or other to users.

    Pharma also has an issue due to low process yields. Toxins are in the water and soil. Plants meet effluent standards but there are no toxicity standards. That is a BIG unaddressed issue.
    Returned drugs will have to be sealed in a landfill. Why? If they leach in soil, no one will know the impact of the leached materials for decades. Remember these drugs are toxins that kill bacteria. They have impact on fauna, aquatic life, water and soil. All that impacts human life. Ill effects of drug effluent are documented in 2007 studies. [D.G. Joakim Larsson, Cecilia de Pedro, and Nicklas Paxeus, Effluent from drug manufactures contains extremely high levels of pharmaceuticals; Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 148, Issue 3, 30 September 2007, Pages 751-755].
    Flushing down the toilet is a bad option that has been discussed by many. Putting drugs in cat litter is again asking for trouble. Drugs will leach out in soil and water. This is called delayed agony.
    There are no easy solutions. Eventually we will all pay for the surplus drug disposal.

    • There really is an easy solution in most instances, it’s called incineration. Fire/high temperature does a pretty good job of breaking down complex chemicals.

      The best way to set up a disposal system would be to have pharmacies accept them and have a distributor pick them up. Only a very small percentage of prescription drugs will be returned for disposal and their volume is small. PhARMA could set up a system and collect a small fee on each pill sold (or an assessment on companies based on volume) to fund it.

  • The OTC companies might consider providing their products in smaller amounts. I recently had to buy 100 tablets only to discover that the product did not “work” for me. Pharma should do the same when a patient is prescribed a med for the first time. ***The cost of the smaller amount of medication/OTC product should be reasonable. It is not reasonable to pay $10.00 for a travel/trial size of a popular OTC pain medication.

Comments are closed.