February 18, 2020

Please Don't Flush

Illinois Could Establish a Statewide Drug Take-back Program

Last Thursday I was proud to stand with representatives from environmental groups, public health and public safety experts, as State Representative Jennifer Gong Gershowitz introduced the Illinois Drug Take-Back Act (HB4888), which would establish a statewide collection and disposal program for unused and expired meds overseen by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and funded by pharmaceutical manufacturers. You can find the full text and the synopsis of HB 4888 here.

I’ve been working on the issue of safe, secure collection of unused drugs for years. With Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin leading the effort, we succeeded in passing a county-wide collection ordinance that went into effect in 2017. Since then, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department has expanded collection sites from 80 to more than 200 and last year alone collected more than 40,000 lbs. of medications (20-25 percent were opioids).

“Today we are introducing legislation that protects public health by keeping drugs out of the hands of our children and our waterways,” Representative Jennifer Gong Gershowitz said at a press conference in the Thompson Center. “Drug take-back programs provide communities with a simple, safe and effective way to dispose of their leftover medicines.”

Many people mistakenly think that the safe and responsible way to dispose of unused and unwanted medicines is to flush them down the toilet. Unfortunately, wastewater treatment plants cannot remove pharmaceuticals in the treatment process, so much of what’s flushed down the toilet will end up in our rivers and streams—and ultimately in our drinking water. Moreover, some studies are beginning to show detrimental effects on fish and aquatic life from exposure to the stew of drugs in waterways. And throwing drugs out in the trash, even if mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds as some would suggest, is bad practice as well since the leachate from landfills conveys chemicals to treatment plants or filters into groundwater. Much better to have a safe, secure collection program that results in destruction of the drugs in a way that doesn’t add to air or water pollution.

Storing unused or expired medicines can also lead to accidental poisoning, drug abuse, and even drug trafficking. More people start down the path of addiction through the misuse of opioid prescription drugs than any other substance. In Illinois, prescription pain medication overdose deaths doubled between 2013 and 2016, with 1,896 deaths in 2019 alone.

This new legislation builds on programs that a number of other states have already established, including California, Oregon, Washington, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts, not to mention Canada and Spain, which have nationwide drug take-back programs. Based on a “product stewardship” model, the Illinois Act holds manufacturers responsible for the full life cycle of the products they make, providing a sustainable funding source for the new collection program. Retailers, counties, law enforcement agencies, and other entities already providing this service will be reimbursed for their collection programs.

The Illinois Drug Take-Back Act is supported by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, the Illinois Environmental Council, the Illinois Product Stewardship Council, the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County, and other groups.

Please ask you State representative to co-sponsor HB4888, the Illinois Drug Take-Back Act. You can find your representative’s email address here.

While the bill makes its way through the General Assembly—and I will endeavor to keep you informed—you can find existing locations to dispose of your unused and expired meds here for Cook County residents and around the state here. Note: the Cook County Sheriff’s Department offers a free mail-back program for people who do not drive or who are homebound. You can request a mail-back envelope by calling (1-844-688-7379).