Opioid overdoses have spiked over the past couple of years, in Minnesota and the United States, due to the pandemic's burdens combined with increased availability of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin. A Minnetonka-based company is handing out a product that could potentially reduce opioid abuse at the place it often begins — the family medicine cabinet. Verde Environmental Technologies is partnering with the national nonprofit SAFE Project on the national Gone for Good campaign. Throughout April, they'll be giving away 30,000 Deterra drug-disposal pouches, which use activated charcoal and tap water to render leftover drugs inert. We spoke to Verde CEO Jason Sundby about the campaign — and what is at stake.
Q: CDC figures show drug overdose deaths, in this state and nationally, leveling off from 2018 to 2020, then spiking in early 2020. What role has the pandemic, along with increased fentanyl use, played in the increase?
A: The pandemic created uncertainty, isolation and mental health distress, and many turned to substance misuse as a coping mechanism. During the height of the pandemic, over 10% of Americans started or increased their substance use. Plus, fentanyl is increasingly available in the illicit drug market. It's potent and is being mixed into counterfeit tablets made to look like genuine prescriptions found in the home medicine cabinets which Americans take, leading to overdose.
Q: What proportion of opioid use is connected to prescription drugs falling into the hands of people other than the patients for whom they were prescribed?
A: In 2020, 9.3 million Americans misused prescription pain relievers — largely opioids. In one federal report, nearly half of respondents said the medication was given by, purchased from or stolen from a friend or relative. This shows how common it is for leftover drugs to end up with someone who never had a prescription in the first place.
Q: The pouch is designed to be used when disposing of drugs. What are risks associated with throwing them into the garbage without deactivation?
A: Without permanent deactivation before disposal, still-potent drugs are available for misuse or accidental ingestion. Mixing unwanted drugs with cat litter or coffee grounds is a deterrent but maintains the drugs' integrity. Also, incorrectly disposing of drugs by flushing, sinking, or throwing into the trash contaminates our environment. The drugs leach into our soil, groundwater, surface water and drinking water.
Q: What led you to get involved in reducing the abuse of chemicals and their presence in the environment?
A: I first became involved as an early investor with Atlas Capital Partners, taking a board seat and then a leadership role in the company and was impressed with their sustainability focus. Our team strives for the safe destruction of unused drugs from peoples' homes and we work tirelessly to prevent abuse and misuse at the source, thus preventing the downstream problems of overdose and addiction while protecting our environment.
Q: How do the pouches deactivate and destroy the drugs? Besides opioids, are there others that should be deactivated before disposal?
A: The Deterra Pouch contains a water-soluble pod of activated carbon. After placing drugs in the pouch, you add water. The carbon permanently absorbs the active ingredients in the medications (or illicit drugs), deactivating the chemicals, rendering them harmless and safe to throw in household trash. We believe that all leftover prescription and over-the-counter medications should be permanently destroyed before disposal, due to the risks of misuse or environmental contamination. We've worked hard to make sure that our product works on numerous drug forms, including pills, patches and liquids.
Q: You're giving the pouches away free this month to anyone who requests one. How much do they normally cost, and where are they sold?
A: During the month of April, you can go to DeterraSystem.com/SAFE to request a free pouch. Pricing varies, however. Our medium pouch starts at $3.89 per unit, and discounts apply to businesses looking to buy in bulk. Pouches are available to purchase on our website, DeterraSystem.com, and Amazon. We also have customers around the country who purchase Deterra and hand out the pouches to community members. A few local examples are the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, Twin Cities Orthopedics and the Minnesota Farm Bureau.
Q: How did Verde decide to partner with the national nonprofit SAFE Project?
A: We met SAFE Project co-founders Adm. Sandy Winnefeld and Mary Winnefeld, in 2019, and we quickly realized their mission of collective action was something we shared. We launched the Gone for Good campaign with SAFE Project in April 2020 because we saw how the pandemic had diminished options to safely dispose of medications. Many of the April National Prescription Drug Take Back Day events were cancelled to prevent COVID spread.
Q: How many pouches have you distributed to date?
A: We're now on our fifth campaign. We've distributed 71,000 free pouches to U.S. households and we're slated to distribute another 30,000 this April. That will be enough to destroy over 9 million pills. This epidemic is overwhelming, but we believe it's not insurmountable. With Gone for Good, local action creates national impact, and we are committed to saving lives through a focus on prevention.