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How to Properly Dispose of Syringes and Other Drug-Related Equipment

In some places, such as Tennessee, possessing syringes after they’ve been used to inject drugs is illegal. As someone who’s lived in rural Tennessee his entire life, I understand that some people—think people who are devout, stubborn Christians, largely-right-leaning political ideology holders, those who believe problem drug use is caused by a moral deficiency—look at self-administered injection drug use as inherently wrong and synonymous with going off the proverbial deep end.

No matter how “strung out” or messed up any person who uses drugs is, I think it’s safe to say that nobody feels okay with littering used syringes

Here’s an anecdote — I live in Martin, a small town in rural Northwest Tennessee with about 10,000 people; our county, Weakley, is home to roughly 33,000. I have semi-regularly picked up litter for about a year-and-a-half, maybe two years. I’ve gone as long as three months without litter-picking and, on the other hand, have probably have spent as many as 7 to 10 days a month picking up litter

All in all, I don’t devote much time to litter-picking; truthfully, I enjoy being outside and picking up the mess that we’re all responsible for. 

In the grand scheme of things, finding used syringes on the ground five times is nothing! However, when you realize I only spend two or three hours picking up litter each month —tops — and live in a small, laid-back town that’s home to just 10,000 people, it’s easy to get alarmed.

Criminalizing Drug Use Directly Caused Those Syringes to Be Thrown Away Improperly

We all want medical waste such as syringes to be thrown away in sturdy sharps containers or otherwise securely disposed of. We don’t want used syringes to be found anywhere else. 

Then why did I find syringes on five occasions in a year’s time? Let’s juggle a few ideas and sort out what’s up and what’s down.

No Sharps Container Usage

Injection drug users are supposed to use sharps containers to protect people from used, potentially disease-ridden syringes. However, my friend Jane, a 47-year-old injection heroin user who helps me distribute harm reduction supplies who lives in Northwest Tennessee and is well-connected in the area, told meme yesterday that she’s never, ever seen an IDU dispose of their dirty sharps in a sharps container!

One reason for this is that sharps containers aren’t something that most IDUs are willing to buy, as anything not spent on drugs is a waste of resources. Sharps containers keep their contents in place quite well. As such, syringes discarded elsewhere are more likely to move around.

To Face Criminal Charges or to Quickly Throw Syringes Out the Window?

No injection drug user wants to risk going to jail because of a pesky syringe—that’s for damn sure!

Smart IDUs aren’t the only ones who are able to ascertain that throwing a syringe out of a moving vehicle could potentially injure a person or animal; doing so could also transmit serious, eventually-fatal diseases such as HIV. I’m confident in saying that we all know that.

Getting caught with just one syringe can cause people like me to violate their current probation, potentially resulting in the probationer going to jail for as long as the probation term originally was. We can lose significant others and spouses who aren’t aware of our injection drug use. Employment opportunities might not be extended to us, even if we’re otherwise-stellar candidates, because unappealing criminal records could very well—and often do—hold us back.

Just one syringe can lead to forced enrollment in a city’s, county’s, or municipality’s draconian drug court program.

Why risk it? Most injection drug users would agree that it’s better to chuck a used, uncapped syringe outta a moving vehicle rather than even risk getting caught with it.

No Legally-Approved Syringe Disposal Receptacle

Here in West Tennessee’s southwestern-most corner is Shelby County, home of Memphis. For a few years now, the Shelby County Health Department has maintained its Needle Disposal Program.

For a small fee, the government-run health facility provides injection drug users and anybody else who uses syringes, ranging from testosterone replacement therapy patients, to people with diabetes, and patients taking other hormones with a sharps container and an invaluable service: disposing of participants’ full sharps containers in a safe, legal manner.

Other than A Betor Way and Safe Point, Memphis’ two syringe services programs, which was founded in August 2019, there are no other places to throw away syringes in West Tennessee—at least not legally, that’s for sure.

Another Note for My Fellow Tennesseans 

T.C.A. § 40-7-124, put simply, is a 2015 law that protects people who, before a search is executed on their person, vehicle, home, or something else, tell law enforcement that they’re in possession of syringes or sharp objects that could otherwise be construed as evidence for violating T.C.A. § 39-17-425. 

The purpose of this law is, ostensibly, to protect law enforcement officers. I’ve read that some 30% of LEO end up experiencing needlestick injuries at least once in their careers.

It’s true that needlestick injuries are unlikely to transmit blood-borne diseases like HIV. Experts currently consider the risk of HIV transmission from a needlestick injury to be between 0.1% and 1%.

Transmission risk aside, nobody wants to risk being pricked, poked, or stuck by a used syringe’s needle, whether it’s their own or a complete stranger’s.

This law (T.C.A. § 40-7-124) helps law enforcement stay safe, reduces risks of criminal charges, increases the likelihood of cooperation from the officers or deputies who are at the scene, and gives drug users more personal liberty. 

Here’s How We Dispose of Syringes:

The item you want the most is a sharps container, sometimes colloquially called a “sin bin.”

Sharps containers owe their success to characteristics like its rigid plastic walls, self-locking seal, and impossible-to-overlook design. Arguably the only bad thing about them is that safely reusing them is all but impossible. If you’re involved in any grassroots efforts in which you struggle to afford supplies like sharps containers and reuse them in an attempt to save money, you should immediately quit the behavior because we should all strive to reduce movements made of and time spent in handling used syringes.

Simply open the sharps container, insert the used sharps, then close it once you’re done.

Most sin bins only recommend that the injection drug users who use them should stop filling their sharps containers around the three-quarter-full point, give or take a hair.

Let’s Say We Can’t Get Our Hands on Sharps Containers

Recall the characteristics of sharps containers above that make them so ideal for their intended use? Your mental list should start off with the first three items below in no particular order; you may not know about the latter-most three:

  • Rigid, all thanks to its thick, dense, structured, virtually-impenetrable walls.
  • In-your-face color scheme helps people locate full sharps containers and avoid potential unwanted health-related outcomes.
  • Although not all of these receptacles fit the bill of their counterpart described above, the best out there all create their own seal and lock any lids, windows, or panes.
  • Sharps containers are designed to stay in one single spot when recently-finished injection drug users fill their sin bins full of used sharps.
  • Biohazard waste is appropriately kept away from unwanted areas, people, or things, via sharps containers’ ability to prevent liquids from leaking out of the disposable-yet-reliable sharps containers.
  • How many times can you completely unseal and reseal a sharps container? The more times you can make this happen,

The closer your makeshift sharps container adheres to the aforementioned six characteristics, the better off you will likely be going forward.

Not sure how to go about crafting a makeshift sharps container? Aim to get the best raw “body”—or the “sharps container” part of the sharps container, if that makes sense —to place syringes and other unwanted biohazard supplies in.

Try Out Laundry Detergent Bottles

Of course, first, you’ll need to rinse out the detergent container. Before actually putting any syringes in the makeshift sharps container, make sure there are no holes in the container currently and ensure that it’s sturdy enough to take a beating if need be. Filling the container with water and examining it for leaks is a great way to save time and find the potential flaws of a makeshift sharps container.

Once they’re full, I recommend shoving paper towels, a mass of cotton, or wadded-up paper in the opening followed up by a generous amount of tape to prevent the used syringes from falling out. Also, aim for bright orange or neon yellow — or any bright, loud color of strong, reliable tape — so that you and other people can better see the makeshift sharps container.

How About the Thickest Plastic Bottles You Can Find?

We don’t need any special volume of plastic bottle now, really — what’s important is its thickness. Plastic bottles’ thickness is usually considerably thin, though most run-of-the-mill, two-liter drinks will be plenty thick enough for keeping the contents of your makeshift sharps container and the outside world.

20-ounce bottles are convenient for securely — well, at least as securely as you currently reasonably can, that is — putting away a handful of used syringes. These bottles are just about the thickest on the market, if you didn’t already know. It’s said that people who drink any kind of coke or brown, carbonated soda are more likely to be able to jam syringes in a half-full soda bottle, for example, which 20-ounce bottles lend themselves to.

Other plastic bottles that are sturdy enough to withstand punctures from anything in its environment are must-haves. 

Since plastic drink bottles aren’t intended for use as sharps containers, they are many times more likely to sustain a puncture in its exterior than their counterpart, the real-deal sharps containers. 

What If You Don’t Have ANYTHING to Put Your Used Sharps in?

This is a tough situation. Think for a moment—the most dangerous part of a syringes is the needle, right? Try breaking the needle off, though make sure you’re careful enough not to lose it. Next, pull the plunger from your used syringe and drop the now-broken needle inside the syringe’s barrel. Return the plunger to the barrel to reduce the chance of the needle coming out and getting in anybody’s or anything’s way. 

Again, relatively-thick plastic bottles and laundry detergent containers are both sufficient for placing used sharps in.

If you don’t mind asking around, try local prevention coalitions, churches, pharmacies, police departments, sheriff’s departments, and health departments for sharps containers.

How Can We Tennesseans Get Somewhere to Legally Throw Our Used Syringes Away?

The Shelby County Health Department, from as far back as September 2018, gave people a sharps container and then emptied it for them. SCHD charged “a small fee” for each sharps container.

Tennessee is home to—I believe—seven syringe services programs (SSPs): four in East TN, one in Middle, and two in West. One of roughly a dozen things that SSPs do is taking participants’ used syringes and throwing them away. Participants cannot get in legal trouble for being involved with them as a result of the protections that the state grants SSPs.

In Knoxville, Chattanooga, Johnson City, Nashville, Memphis, and a small city in East TN that I forgot the name of, people can throw their syringes away without any interference from law enforcement. 

At the very least, we need health departments, police departments, etc. to serve as the place to “trash” the used syringes. This costs little money. I think everybody, regardless of how conservative or anti-drug they are, could be in support of these used syringe receptacles; since the syringes have already been used, what “bad” could those conservative/anti-drug people be doing? They’re not contributing anything to the situation, in other words. 

So, Again, How Can I Advocate for the Adoption of Law Changes or Law Enforcement Officer Policy Changes in Terms of Handling Laws?

  1. If you live in an area in which high-gauge insulin syringes are very difficult to find, consider sourcing them—whether you have to do that from a syringe services program or syringe exchange, an e-commerce website that specializes in diabetic supplies or all sorts of general medical supplies, or an organization that sends them for free to people all across the United States via the mail like NEXT Distro of New York City, New York—yourself and then distributing those clean syringes for free to injection drug users throughout your local area. 
  2. Educating your fellow drug users about harm reduction and why distributing supplies, educating others, and maintaining contact with others in the harm reduction space to identify market trends is a great way to advocate for this cause. 
  3. By having other people in your network besides you, you can learn things, catch onto opportunities that are potentially of value, and maybe even become lifelong friends! 
  4. Out yourself as a drug user, but only if you are fully capable of CONSTANTLY representing yourself as an upstanding, reasonable, understanding, contributing member of society. If you choose to venture this path, just know that you might be hurting our greater reputation as problematic drug users single-handedly.

Although there are other methods of advocating for harm reduction-positive policy and practice adoption, these four are more than enough to get you started. 

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By Daniel Garrett

I'm a self-employed writer, long-term drug user, and resident of rural Tennessee. Find me on Twitter at @DanielGarrettHR or email me at danpgarr@ut.utm.edu.

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