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Making Earth Day meds-disposal day in Bayville

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When Richard Walka’s mother-in-law died 15 years ago, he had an unexpected dilemma on his hands: what to do with four shopping bags filled with her prescription and over-the-counter medications, and no safe way to get rid of them without potentially harming the environment.

After that experience, Walka, the chairman of the Bayville Environmental Conservation Commission, looked for years for a solution to the problem.

Walka, 69, who had worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in the 1970s, learned of a line item in the 2021 state budget for DEC grants for secure U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration-compliant drop boxes for prescription controlled and non-controlled substances. He was instrumental in ensuring that Bayville Pharmacy be designated an approved location for a drop box by the DEC, and the box was placed in the pharmacy in January.

The initiative has been a success, he said, with over 70 pounds of medical waste collected in less than three months. Walka, who traditionally takes part in a beach cleanup on Earth Day, said three weeks ago that he had come up with another idea for a way to boost residents’ use of the drop box and heighten their environmental awareness.

“Not to pooh-pooh a beach cleanup, but the last couple of years on Earth Day, my son and I had trouble finding even bottle caps,” Walka, a semi-retired environmental engineer, said. “I wanted to find something that all residents could participate in.”

He suggested to the BECC, and then to Bayville Mayor Bob De Natale, that the week of Earth Day, April 22, be marked by a collective disposal of prescription and over-the-counter drugs at the Bayville Pharmacy drop box. Everyone he talked to said they thought it was a great idea.

“You go into your cupboards and find the expired medications and pet medications, and instead of throwing it away or flushing it down the toilet, where the chemicals harm the environment, you put it in the drop box,” Walka said. “It’s a different way to mark Earth Day that could have a significant dividend environmentally and be beneficial to the health and safety of your home.”

In Bayville, pharmaceuticals that are thrown away end up in a landfill, and those that are flushed down the toilet are channeled to either a septic tank or a cesspool.

Walka’s son, Richard Walka Jr., 16, a sophomore at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, is a member of the school’s Sustainability Club. He said his father had always encouraged his involvement in environmental activities.

“As a little boy, I remember Earth Day as being an important day to keep the Earth clean for future generations,” Richard said. “We usually did a beach cleanup where, when we got to a certain spot, we would find lots of plastics from past visitors.”

Membership in the Sustainability Club gives him an opportunity, he said, to make his fellow students aware of environmental problems globally and in his hometown. “A lot of people take this seriously,” Richard said. “We send them emails, and people come to our meetings.”

He has told club members about his father’s plans for the Bayville Pharmacy drop box effort on Earth Day, and said they seemed excited about it and wanted to get involved. “Having a designated area to drop off the medications is important,” Richard said. “This will keep medication out of the ocean and landfills. I’ve told the kids to tell their parents so they drop off the medications.” 

Michael Hancock, the pharmacist at Bayville Pharmacy, confirmed that the drop box has been a success, and added that he loved the Earth Day idea. “People who come in tell me how happy they are to have the drop box available,” he said. “We have a lot of foot traffic here now.”

Richard Walka Jr. said he believes that this kind of education is important. “People don’t understand the impact that disposing of medications improperly can have now and in the future,” he said. “If everyone does this, it will make a big impact.”