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Sharp Thinking

news1Local program collects used sharps and old medicines

What does one do with that medicine cabinet full of expired aspirin bottles, ancient antibiotics, and other colorful capsules whose origins are long forgotten? What is the proper way to dispose of used syringes? While tossing these items into the trash or flushing them down the drain may be a common response, such impulsive disposal methods can actually harm Central Coast residents and natural habitats.

Sharp Solutions for Home Medicines is a “take-back program” for old or unwanted medicines and used sharps, or instruments such as hypodermic needles and lancets designed to puncture the skin. The program has established 31 free drop-off sites across Santa Cruz County and has collected 15,000 pounds of hazardous medical waste since its 2007 launch. This waste, enough to fill a city garbage truck to the brim, may have otherwise littered the county’s public spaces, harmed local landfill workers, or polluted the Monterey Bay.

“It’s convenient for the public,” says Santa Cruz County Recycling Programs Coordinator Jeffrey Smedberg. “We are focusing on retail as a majority of take-back sites [and] we have collection locations at most pharmacies in the county.” Watsonville Pharmacy, the CVS locations in Santa Cruz, and New Leaf Market Pharmacy in Felton are among the participating locations.

Initially funded by a grant from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, Sharp Solutions is sponsored by Santa Cruz County and the cities of Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Capitola, and Scotts Valley. Partner entities Ecology Action and Environmental Innovations helped implement the program. Sharp Solutions is considered especially innovative because it combines medicine and sharps collection in a single effort.

Medicine Collection

In 2002, the U.S. Geological Survey tested 139 waterways in 30 states and found that 80 percent had measurable concentrations of hormones, steroids, and other medical compounds. While the effects of this trend on animal and human life is not fully known, the practice of dumping old or unused medicines down the drain has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.

“Waste water plants are not designed to deal with the chemical compounds found in medicines,” says Bob Geyer, assistant director of public works for the City of Watsonville. In other words, flushing that bottle of medicine down the toilet is a lot like dumping it directly into the bay.

Geyer reports that the technology required to filter such medical compounds from waste water is prohibitively expensive. “It is far more effective to keep that stuff out of the waste stream than to remove it,” he says.

That is why Sharp Solutions’ collection sites ship collected medical waste to facilities where it is safely incinerated. The sites take back items such as prescription, over-the-counter, and pet medicines, vitamins, ointments, and inhalers. The program has collected 9,000 pounds of medicines so far.

Sharps Collection

In Sept. 2008 California lawmakers made it illegal to put sharps in trash or recycling containers. Used sharps can be contaminated with blood-borne illnesses and can injure sanitation workers and litter public spaces.

For Robert Steelman, the Watsonville garbage and recycling manager, the threat posed by improperly discarded sharps is a daily workplace reality. “When you’re picking stuff up you can get jabbed,” he says. “It is dangerous to sort recycling on the line,” he says, because even the heavy gloves and steel-toed boots worn by his fellow workers do not guarantee total protection. “A few years ago we had some people who got jabbed,” he says, “they had to go through the whole scary process of clinical tests.” Steelman has observed fewer sharps in local landfills since Sharp Solutions began collecting them.

Sharp Solutions has collected 6,000 pounds of sharps so far, and this success has involved considerable outreach within the county’s diabetic population. “We make sure that we distribute this information at the ground level,” says Lori Larson, a registered nurse and community diabetes educator with the Visiting Nurses Association of Santa Cruz County. “There’s been a tremendous response in the community.”

Despite the program’s considerable success, obstacles remain. For example, participants must bring used sharps to the collection sites in state-approved biohazard containers. Although Sharp Solutions has been able to offer a limited supply of free or discounted sharps containers, the cost of purchasing the containers required for every drop-off continues to be an impossible expense for some community members.

“Some patients have to choose between buying dinner and buying a sharps container,” says Larson, reporting that large containers can cost up to $25. “Some are still struggling to get rid of the sharps accumulating in their homes,” she says, noting that some people with diabetes use up to four sharps per day.

Street Outreach Supporters

Community members who are unable or unwilling to bring used sharps to Sharp Solutions collection facilities can visit local needle exchange sites run by an organization called Street Outreach Supporters (SOS). “If people have used needles that they want to dispose of and they don’t have a sharps container we are another option,” says an SOS volunteer who prefers to remain nameless. In addition, SOS distributes sharps containers to people in need.

Operating out of vans, SOS provides street-based needle exchange services four times a week at various Santa Cruz locations. They accept used sharps in exchange for fresh needles and other safe injection supplies. In this way, SOS promotes safe disposal methods, harm reduction, and disease prevention among injection drug users and others in the community.

SOS has been the only needle exchange program operating in Santa Cruz since Sept. 2009 when the Santa Cruz AIDS Project’s valuable Drop-In Center closed in the wake of devastating cuts to HIV Education and Prevention funds in California. Donations, fundraising events, and a dedicated crew of roughly 40 volunteers keep SOS afloat.

“We are keeping used needles off the streets and out of the parks because people are motivated to bring them in for exchange instead of just tossing them into the bushes,” says the SOS volunteer. “They know they can get a clean one from us.”

Looking Ahead

The combined efforts of Sharp Solutions and SOS have improved public health, ensured safer conditions for local workers, and contributed to a cleaner Santa Cruz, but the organizations say there is more work to be done.

“Fifteen-thousand pounds is a lot, but it is only the tip of the iceberg,” says Smedberg, who stresses that continued education and outreach are needed to keep those collection numbers growing.

The state funds that have supported Sharp Solutions so far are set to expire this year and program coordinators are seeking additional sponsors to sustain their efforts.

“In Santa Cruz in the 1980s we had a problem with syringes being found in playgrounds,” says former Santa Cruz Mayor and State Assemblyman John Laird. “That has gradually been eradicated, but we can’t take it for granted ... we can’t be made complacent by such success.”


More information about Sharp Solutions can be found at sharpmedsolutions.org.  Call (831) 239-0657 for Street Outreach Supporters’ needle exchange services. For more information about Street Outreach Solutions (SOS), or to participate in their services, call 831-239-0657.
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