How collected prescription drugs are destroyed, used to heat parts of downtown Indy

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - As central Indiana and communities across the country are coping with an opioid abuse crisis, more Hoosiers are making use of various events intended to take expired or unwanted prescription drugs off their hands.

According to the Indianapolis office of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), public drug take-back events have collected more than 100 tons pills and other medicines in Indiana since 2010.  A recent drug take-back event on Monument Circle collected roughly 300 trash bags of drugs in one day.  Local law enforcement and the Indiana Attorney General’s Office say such events are a crucial element in the fight against drug addiction.

“The vast majority of medications that are available to people are coming from friends and family surplus supplies that people are able to divert for abuse,” said Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill.  “You need to go through your cabinets, check out what’s there, what’s expired, what you need to get rid of.  Collect it and have a place to go to properly dispose of it.”

Greg Westfall, Special Agent in Charge at the Indianapolis DEA, says drug collection and destruction is the only way to ensure opioids won’t end up the wrong hands.

“A street dealer, out on the street, can get almost a dollar per milligram for a pill,” Westfall said.  “If you look at a 30 milligram oxycodone pill, that could go for $30 on the street.  And that’s what they’re making out there.”

But many Hoosiers don’t know where all those drugs go after they’re collected.

“The safest and best way to get the things destroyed, so it will never ever be used again, is incineration,” Westfall said.

To achieve that, law enforcement agencies across the state turn to Covanta Indianapolis, a waste management facility on the southwest side of the city.  Covanta contracts with municipalities and agencies around the area for solid waste disposal.  The company also partners with the Indiana Attorney General’s office for public drug take-back events.

Covanta’s facility off Harding Street includes an industrial-sized boiler system that can reduce collected medications to ash.  Covanta Indianapolis Business Manager, Bindi Kean says the process of destroying 300 pounds of medications takes about an hour.

“It’ll be fed through our hopper feed system and combusted at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” Kean said.  

For security reasons, Westfall says drug deliveries to Covanta are conducted at undisclosed times.  The drugs are transported and delivered under extremely tight security.

“We have people staged on the semis that bring it, from the time it leaves the semis, to the time it goes up the elevators, into the conveyor belt and into the pits,” Westfall said.  “Eyes are on that at all times, by not only law enforcement, but also Covanta personnel as well.”

Once the drugs are loaded in shrink-wrapped boxes into the Covanta facility, they’re placed on an elevator.  The elevator lifts pallets of the boxes to a hopper feed system, which lowers the drugs into the boiler for destruction.  

But that’s not the end of the process.

“During the combustion process, we create steam,” Kean said.  “The steam is purchased by Citizens Energy to heat the downtown loop.”

Once Citizens Energy pumps the steam into the downtown area, it’s used to provide heat to several of Indianapolis’ largest facilities.  Those include Eli Lilly, Ingredion, the Central Library Branch and several buildings on the IUPUI campus.

The process amounts to unwanted drugs being used as fuel for an energy source, instead of someone’s addiction.

“They’re off the streets,” Westfall said.  “The last thing we want is for that to hit the user or the public again.”

Aside from drug take-back events, many public buildings like police and fire stations, and pharmacies have drug deposit boxes where anyone can drop off unwanted prescription drugs.  The Indianapolis DEA and State Government websites have search tools where you can find the drop-off location near you.