With 49 drop boxes set up at local law enforcement agencies and pharmacies, the county is offering a free and easy way to collect meds and help keep them from being "diverted, abused, misused, or inadvertently taken," said Waymond Wong, the county's environmental health program supervisor.
In 2006, the county launched what is believed to be the first effort in the nation to collect medicines through law enforcement agencies. Officers were also involved in transporting the medications from the 14 collection sites.
Three years ago a shift occurred when a new ordinance went into effect, making the companies that produce and sell prescription and over-the-counter medicines in the county responsible for collecting and disposing of residents' unwanted and expired medicines. The list of mostly American companies includes Peninsula-based ones, such as Corcept Therapeutics in Menlo Park, Jazz Pharmaceuticals in Palo Alto, and Roche Holdings and Genentech in South San Francisco.
Since early 2017 the pharmaceutical companies have funded a program called MED-Project to manage the process in San Mateo County, and law enforcement officers are no longer involved in the physical transportation of medications.
A recent report shows that last year the new program cost more than $1.2 million, and collected 24,600 pounds of expired and unwanted meds in the county from kiosks, at take-back events, and through mail-in envelopes. The county said it collected an additional 7,005 pounds during the transition to the new program, leading to a total increase of 15 percent more medications rounded up in 2017 than 2016.
MED-Project kiosks are bright blue, bolted to the ground, and apparently well used. A spot check at the beginning of this year found the drop box located in the lobby of the Menlo Park Police Department at 701 Laurel St. temporarily closed with a sign saying: "Full do not use."
Menlo Park police spokeswoman Nicole Acker said, "It's a good service to the public; plenty of people do use it."
The officer on duty at the front desk of the Redwood City Police Department at 1301 Maple St. said when the kiosk gets full there, "people try to sneak stuff in all the time; we just say no."
Wong explained how an on-site representative, usually an officer or pharmacist, oversees the collection. They call Stericycle, an international medical waste management company, to come and package up the medicines when the kiosk needs emptying. The next step is having a "common carrier," such as the U.S. Postal Service or the United Parcel Service (UPS), pick up the medications, which then go "to different hazardous waste incinerators out of state ... to completely destroy the medications," Wong said.
MED-Project reports using disposal facilities located in Utah, Indiana and Ohio.
Medications are accepted in any dosages with the exception of aerosols, compressed cylinders, inhalers, sharps (needles), medical devices, illicit drugs, medicines containing iodine, and herbal and vitamin supplements. Pills can be combined into a plastic bag, but liquids, creams and gels should not be mixed, and should be disposed of in their original packaging with the personal information on labels removed or blacked out to protect privacy.
Needles and other sharp medical objects have their own dedicated drop-off bins at facilities such as Kaiser Permanente and Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City.
The website med-project.org has the addresses of kiosk sites in San Mateo County and neighboring counties.
According to the website, disabled and homebound residents also have the option of using a mail-back program to dispose of their medications. Initially, prepaid postage envelopes addressed to Stericycle were made available at San Mateo County libraries to help get the word out. In January, for example, an employee at the Woodside Library noticed more requests for envelopes after a MED-Project poster was placed in the restroom there.
Wong said residents are now advised to request envelopes online or by calling 844-MED-Proj. The envelopes hold up to 8 ounces.
The third option MED-Project suggests on its website is "in-home disposal," where medications are combined with coffee grounds, kitty litter, or dirt in a sealed container and then thrown into the trash.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may stand by it, but Wong sees that option as a last resort.
He would like to see the county program grow, and encourages people to ask their local pharmacists to participate in it by setting up drop boxes on site so customers can "bring it to where you bought it."
He noted that Walgreens has set up its own system of medicine disposal bins at some stores on the Peninsula.
In a statement, San Mateo County Environmental Health Services Director Heather Forshey said: "Many people do not realize that improper disposal, such as tossing medication in the garbage or flushing (it) down the toilet, has serious environmental consequences. Not only can it impact groundwater supply, but chemicals also end up into rivers, bays and the ocean as sewage treatment plants do not filter out certain pharmaceutical compounds. By taking unused medicines to one of the county's drop-off locations, residents help protect the environment, avoid accidental consumption by pets and children, and help to keep drugs out of the wrong hands."