Study shows only 2 percent of unused prescription drugs going to take-back programs in Wisconsin

News Release Published: January 10, 2013 by the Central Office

Contact(s): Brad Wolbert, 608-264-6286

MADISON - A new study indicates the vast majority of prescription and over-the-counter drugs in Wisconsin are not being disposed of properly and recommends boosting programs designed to collect unused household medications. Such programs keep more of the drugs out of the hands of those who would abuse them and out of the environment.

The study, commissioned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and written jointly by University of Wisconsin Extension and the Product Stewardship Institute, takes an in-depth look at current collection programs to identify challenges and opportunities for pharmaceutical destruction, program funding and outreach.

"Unused household drugs are both direct and indirect public health risks, so we wanted to learn how much of an impact current take-back programs are having and how we can make them more successful," said Barb Bickford, DNR medical waste coordinator.

The study estimates that about that 118.8 million prescriptions and over-the-counter medications - approximately 13.1 million pounds - were dispensed and sold in Wisconsin in 2010. Of these, about one-third, or 4.4 million pounds, went unused, and only 2 percent of those were collected for safe disposal.

"The remaining 98 percent were discarded in the trash, flushed down the drain, abused, or are still in our medicine cabinets," Bickford said.

The report indicates that, while the growing number of take-back programs in Wisconsin have shown that pharmaceutical collection measures can work, a number of barriers continue to prevent existing collection programs from achieving significant diversion rates. The study found that barriers to greater access to drug collection programs include high costs, lack of sustainable funding, consumer inconvenience and low public awareness.

"The study showed that, as currently operated, pharmaceutical waste collection programs in Wisconsin are not cost effective when compared to programs in some other countries," said Steve Brachman, UW-Extension solid and hazardous waste specialist and co-author of the study. "The average total cost per pound for Wisconsin take-back programs - including donations, volunteer labor value and disposal costs - ranged between $8.05 and $10.07 or between $0.01 and $0.02 per prescription sold. By comparison, the average cost of programs in Canada is $3.50 per pound and in France is $0.23 per pound."

The researchers recommend boosting opportunities for the public to drop off unused medications without charge, increasing awareness of how safe disposal promotes public health and safety and securing a source of sustainable financing for a statewide program. In addition, adopting regulatory changes to facilitate safe, efficient transportation and destruction of returned pharmaceuticals would reduce program costs.

The study also noted that changes to take-back programs can help with employment and job creation through increased waste hauling, pharmaceutical destruction and patronage at local pharmacies.

For more information on the study and on drug take-back programs, please visit the DNR website and search for "pharmaceuticals management."

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Last Revised: Thursday, January 10, 2013