What happens to the prescription drugs collected on National Take Back Day?

On Tuesday, the 16,000 pounds collected from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Day joined the 2,800 tons of garbage brought to Covanta Essex daily.

“We collected unused, unwanted and expired prescriptions,” said DEA special agent Tim McMahon, adding that this was the first year the federal administration accepted vaping pens and cartridges, too. “We had over 200 police departments across the state that participated in the collection.”

The waste-to-energy facility in Newark turns the garbage into enough power for about 50,000 homes and also powers the facility itself.

In the morning, three National Guard trucks full of prescription medication arrived at the plant.

DEA investigators were on site to make sure every single pill was destroyed, watching the process from the ground and a room above. In the latter of which, an employee operates a crane that picks up the trash and drops it in a hopper that feeds a combustion chamber.

According to James Regan, Covanta’s director of corporate communications, the prescription drugs are destroyed at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The material in the combustion chamber is the fuel to make energy — a sustainable alternative to landfills.

“So years ago, people were told if you have medications in your home, flush them down the drain, and we found waste water treatment facilities can’t really get those pharmaceuticals and medications out of the water properly,” said Regan. “So by bringing it here instead, we’re able to destroy that material and keep it out of the waste water.”

At the company’s 40 plants across the country, they’ve destroyed over six million pounds of prescription medication since 2010.

“The whole medicine cabinet is one of the main ways that people are getting their hands on prescriptions to be used not in the intended way that they were meant to be,” said McMahon.

Special agent McMahon says since its first take back day in 2009, the DEA has collected over 270,000 pounds of prescriptions that NJ residents have turned in.