Sharps deposit boxes are Philadelphia’s newest tool in its four-week-old recovery campaign for opioid-plagued Kensington. Last week, the Philadelphia Public Health Department installed seven of the safe syringe disposal bins at SEPTA stops and public parks throughout the Kensington neighborhood where Mayor Jim Kenney declared a ‘disaster’ earlier this month. The new waste bins are the size and shape of curbside mail dropboxes — the hope is that people will dump their used hypodermics there, instead of leaving them on the ground.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Silvana Mazella, Associate Director at Prevention Point, Philadelphia’s only legal syringe exchange program, which has been running in Kensington since 1992. Syringe exchange programs themselves are designed to incentivize clean up — the idea is that new needles are given out in exchange for used ones, to promote safe disposal.
“This is a good option for people who are not going to bring them in anyway or are in locations right near the boxes,” said Mazella.
The boxes have been installed at Market-Frankford Line stations throughout the Kensington area. There are two each at the Somerset and Alleghany stops, and one at Huntington and Tioga. There is also one at McPherson Square Park, and one more expected to be installed at the Frankford Transportation Center — all the existing boxes were installed on city property. The move comes at a time when the Kenney administration is reconsidering its approach to litter cleanup citywide, and experimenting with multiple new interventions.
For the sharp boxes, the public health department is contracting with New Jersey-based Advant-Edge, a biohazard disposal company, which already picked up medical waste from its community health clinics.
City health officials said Advant-Edge will monitor the bins closely for the first few weeks to see how quickly it takes for them to fill up and require replacement. Each bin holds roughly 1,500 syringes — during a test phase in San Francisco, it took about 11 days for a single bin to reach capacity.
Each bin cost $235 to install and will cost $200 to collect and replace each time. With eight bins being replaced an estimated twice a month (some might be more often, others less) that adds up to about $40,000 a year.
Allison Herens, Harm Reduction Coordinator at the Health Department, said she is confident the boxes will help reduce litter and she’s hopeful it will go beyond that, to challenge the idea that people who use drugs don’t care about clean spaces and safety.
“I think that’s a narrative that’s just not true. I think if you spend time with people in Kensington you’ll see that a lot of them do have containers that they’re already collecting syringes in,” she said.
Unsafely disposing of injection paraphernalia can increase risk for contracting infections or diseases. While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requires medical facilities and other institutions that use syringes to dispose of hazardous waste according to certain safety regulations, individuals are not subject to these laws. The state provides recommendations for safe disposal at home, advising those who may regularly inject intravenously to treat diabetes, M.S. or other chronic diseases, to dispose of the needles in a laundry detergent bottle or other hard, plastic sealable container, and throw it out with the rest of the trash.
So far, Herens said she was pleasantly surprised at the response from the community.
“There are lots of parents, people who live there and have to walk their kids down the streets and worry about that kind of thing,” she said. “Folks were saying this was a really needed service in this community.”
Others were less optimistic, admitted Herens, who heard from many residents that they anticipated the boxes would not deter people from continuing to throw old needles on the ground. Herens said she heard from others still who were worried about vandalism from those who thought the boxes condone drug use, or break-ins from people who wanted to exchange the used needles at Prevention Point in order to get new ones.
Maria Rivera, 68, has lived in Kensington for the past 27 years. She was of two minds about the collection boxes.
“They could help, but also maybe not,” she said in Spanish, passing by on her way home from the Somerset El Stop. “Yes, they could clean up the area — but also, when you put in the facilities, they’re never going to stop using drugs.”
Other cities have installed sharp disposal boxes in areas where there is a lot of public drug use. San Francisco put two in its Tenderloin neighborhood in May of 2017. In 2015, the city of Portland, Maine attached sharps disposal containers to existing public trash cans in public parks where drug use was high. This past spring, Portland Oregon partnered with the surrounding county to ramp up their sharp disposal, and has eight large boxes throughout the city. Herens said she anticipates it will be difficult to measure the impact of the boxes on their own because the city is ramping up a variety of cleanup efforts as a part of the recent emergency declaration in Kensington. Still, she said, “use shows utility” — if the containers fill up, it demonstrates that they are helpful. Several volunteer clean-up efforts are already underway in Kensington, and more are scheduled for later this week. The cleanup efforts so far have yielded 500-1,000 picked-up syringes a week, Herens said. On Thursday, alongside a coordinated effort to clean up Kensington Avenue, the city plans to launch a new program with Prevention Point that will hire four staff members, comprised of people who use drugs, to clean up syringes throughout the neighborhood.