Don't be so quick to throw out that expired blood pressure medication. Drug disposal companies are taking outdated or recalled prescription drugs from pharmacies and manufacturers and incinerating them, generating energy.
Milwaukee-based Capital Returns Inc last year created enough energy to power more than 220 homes for a year. To do that, it incinerated 2.9 million kilograms of pills and other pharmaceuticals sent from pharmacies and drug manufacturers around the country.
The company predicts individuals and not just corporate clients soon will be able to have their unwanted drugs incinerated, too, creating an even larger source of energy. Such a move -- which the federal government must OK -- would give people an alternative to flushing the often toxic substances down their toilets, which can pollute the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency encourages local drug-collection programs to limit the amount of medication that makes it into the water supply, said Ben Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for water. Studies have shown adverse effects on fish, such as to their reproductive organs, though nothing has been shown to harm humans, he said.
Incineration, when done properly, has a minimal effect on the environment. But federal approval could take years. In the meantime, pilot disposal programs are popping up around the country.
The push for these programs will grow as the population ages and people rely on more pharmaceuticals, said Len Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging, which just received an EPA grant to start a pilot program where people return drugs by mail.
The possibility to create more energy will grow as well.
"That would make it a win-win situation for everybody involved and certainly add to the payoff," said Kaye, who also spearheads a conference of academics and others on ways to expand drug disposal. "We want simply at this point to destroy them properly. That's an accomplishment in and of itself."
The pharmaceutical disposal industry -- now only used by manufacturers and pharmacies -- started in the early 1990s. Before that, pharmacies had to do returns themselves or wait for pharmaceutical companies to pick up unwanted drugs and handle destruction.
Since the beginning, Capital Returns decided to use incineration plants that convert to energy to limit the environmental impact, said president Larry Hruska.
Last year it created nearly 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to light up 220 homes for a year. The electrical industry figures the average home uses 9,000 kilowatt hours a year.
"Instead of just having this product go some place and be destroyed, and have no benefit whatsoever because it's dumped in the ground, it's great [that] it's able to create some energy and a resource that people are able to use," he said.
Capital Returns has 28 percent of the returns market and expects a 20 percent increase this year in revenues, Hruska said. He would not give dollar figures for the company, a unit of privately owned GENCO, based in Pittsburgh. There are about 40 medical returns companies -- called "reverse distributors" -- registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to its Web site.
Even though Capital Returns says only about 1 percent of all drugs are returned, either because of recall or expiration, there's plenty to be had. The company estimates the value of pharmaceuticals returned to third-party disposal companies each year is US$4 billion to $5 billion, though that's not what disposal companies are paid. It declined to release numbers.