New Recycling Program Offers Residents a Taste of Their Own Medicine

That which does not kill you… can now be put out with your recycling. In what’s being called a natural step toward “zero landfill living,” Hennepin County launched an innovative program last month to collect residents’ unneeded pills and redistribute them through a network of “med pantries.” Residents with a valid prescription can pick up medications like simvastatin and omeprazole at no cost.


Last year, Hennepin County’s med-only landfill reached 80% capacity.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” explained Roxie Kodone, Communications Director. “They say laughter is the best medicine. Well, giving back to others is also good medicine, especially when it involves giving others good medicine.”

The initiative is modeled after a similar program in Dordrecht, Netherlands, which includes cigarette butts and used chewing gum. It’s the latest in the county’s efforts to encourage recycling, “upcycling” and sharing.

“Last year, the county’s med-only landfill site reached 80% capacity.” said Kodone. “And the Department of Health’s report on SSRI levels in metro lakes just put us over the edge. I mean, snapping turtles no longer snapping? Something had to be done.”

Residents are being urged to place their unneeded prescription medications in special “PharmaKeeps” that the county is distributing on a phased-in basis. The five-gallon bucket is meant to hold two-weeks’ worth of leftover meds from a typical Twin Cities’ family of four.

The initiative is the brainchild of Phil Skripson, M.D., president of Minnesota association of Engaged Health professionals (MEH). For two years, MEH has sponsored “Open PhArms,” a charity that encourages pharmacies to donate gently used or slightly expired pills to the needy.

“We’ve been so jazzed about the success of Open PhArms, as well as our ‘Take a pill, leave a pill’ campaign we piloted at pharmacy check-outs over the holidays. Then, at our quarterly MEH meeting, a lightbulb just went on! So we approached the county and quickly worked out the little legal technicalities.”

Meds are collected every two weeks by converted pothole-patching trucks and taken to a new building at the county’s recycling center. Pill bottles are opened and emptied into vats, which are then dumped onto a conveyor belt, where the pills are sorted by color, size and any legible markings.


Five-gallon med recycling pails designed to hold two weeks of typical household’s old meds.

The facility is managed by Ed Erall, a former salvage yard operator and licensed pharmacist. The work is done mostly by teens from Patheways, a career exploration program that’s part of a nearby prep school, St. Loki’s Academy.

When asked about training and safety concerns, Erall explained, “Look, every one of these kids is like a little pharmacist. No, they don’t have fancy ‘credentials’, but we got ‘em little white jackets and taught ‘em the basics. They use smart phone apps to identify pills and call their friends for stuff they can’t figure out.”

When pressed further, Erall bristled: “Look, we’re doing our best. Can I guarantee that we won’t pass some cat de-worming pills on to your mother? No. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water either — especially if that baby has erectile dysfunction or gastroesophageal reflux disease or whatever, ‘cause we got lotsa free meds for that baby, OK?”

Student workers from St. Loki's Academy sort pills at the county's new pill recycling center

Student workers from St. Loki’s Academy sort pills at county’s new pill recycling center

The program has not been without its critics. Personnel from Minneapolis’s health department have expressed concerns about prescription painkillers falling into the wrong hands. When asked about safeguards, Erall lowered his voice: “Look, let’s just say… we got a guy who knows a guy who handles that stuff for us, OK? Next question.”

One person who won’t be complaining is 81-year-old South Minneapolis resident, Ida Nowell. “Why, it’s just been a godsend. Most months, things are tight with just my Social Security. But last week, my daughter picked up my blood pressure and arthritis drugs at the pantry. They looked kind of different from the ones I usually take… But it’s really put a spring in my step — I guess from knowing I’ll have more money for groceries this month. I mean, after taking the pills, I went out to my garden and worked nine hours straight!”

About Paul Strebe

Paul is a Twin Cities-based healthcare consultant with an interest in healthy communities and aging issues. He lives with his wife and daughters in the South Minneapolis neighborhood of Cooper. He tweets at @paul_klared