Medical Waste is a Growing Problem for Recyclers and Communities

Unintended consequences. Two words that carry a lot of baggage anywhere they end up. Often, one of the biggest issues in dealing with unintended consequences is getting past the blame game in order to work towards a solution. Such is the case right now with medical waste showing up where it should not. Specifically needles. It’s no secret the IV drug use, namely heroin, is through the roof in the US. In the late 90s and early 2000s, doctors were prescribing opiates such as Oxycontin at rates never seen anywhere, anytime. Folks of all ages got hooked on a high which was a cousin to that produced by heroin, a drug that has been around for centuries. However, with a growing population of addicted patients, drug companies and doctors groups saw a backlash from families and lawmakers forcing big pharma to change dosage and prescription recommendations and even the chemical make up of some drugs so as to discourage abuse.

Over the past decade, law enforcement has begun prosecuting doctors believed to be too liberal in their prescribing of opiate drugs. Such doctors were accused of operating “pill mills”. The availability of these drugs on the black market has since dwindled and thus the price per pill has skyrocketed along with demand. What has resulted has been an explosion in the heroin market in the US. A drug that only a decade ago, which had a stigma associated only with junkies and dead rock stars, has seen a frightening resurgence. Why? It’s cheap and it’s very available. Furthermore, to a patient hooked on opiate pain pills, it beats going through the sickness associated with withdrawal. What’s more is that now that soccer moms and suburban kids are hooked, gone is the stigma that once was associated with this terrible scourge.

So, why are we talking about it? Too often now, the discarded needles from heroin use are ending up in recycling centers, sorting plants and like all other litter, the side of the road. They are being tossed in trash bags along with the rest of the household waste. Waste handlers from the municipal “garbage man” to the folks who work at sorting centers are being put at risk. Local law enforcement is also reporting a huge spike in bottles and jugs full of needles being discarded along roadways in urban, suburban and rural communities alike. Normally, medical waste such as used syringes would be incinerated. They would certainly be disposed of in a marked sharps container beforehand.

It’s at this point wherein it is best not to dwell too much upon how we got to now, but rather, where are we headed? From more innovative anti-drug education to needle exchange programs,  it is time we consider all ideas and figure out the most effective manners in which to fight every aspect of this growing problem.