The Department of Environmental Protection is finishing a two-week advertising blitz telling people not to throw loose needles into the trash.

Tens of thousands of Maine residents throw away millions of needles every year, creating a public safety hazard for family members and workers who handle garbage bags.

The ads are part of a larger education campaign including direct mailers and face-to-face conversations that has been particularly focused on counties with high rates of diabetes, including Aroostook, Franklin, Oxford, Penobscot and Somerset.

Department spokeswoman Samantha Depoy-Warren said the campaign appeals to people’s good intentions.

“People were stockpiling needles in their homes, in coffee cans and shoeboxes and jars that can break. Throwing them out in their trash just didn’t seem right to them,” she said. “They wanted to know what to do.”

State diabetes advocacy groups, needle manufacturers, health care professionals, pharmacies and the public contributed ideas to the campaign, she said.

Needles can be thrown in the trash if they are put into a labeled container, which can be purchased from the store or fashioned from puncture-resistant household items like old laundry detergent bottles.

“Certainly we would most prefer someone use a commercially available container because those will survive the trash compactor,” Depoy-Warren said. “If it’s a shoebox or laundry detergent bottle, we’d rather use a laundry detergent bottle and we realize that may be the affordable option for some people.”

At Rite Aid, one of the sponsors of the campaign, pharmacists have personal conversations about disposal techniques with patients.

“Having someone in a white lab coat tell you probably makes people feel a lot more comfortable with it,” said Depoy-Warren.

“Pharmacists are very credible, which is why we chose them.”

Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, encouraged the department to address the issue in February as chairman of the state’s joint standing committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

The committee voted down a measure that would have required manufacturers to be responsible for the safe disposal of used needles, or sharps.

On Monday, Saviello said the bill, which would also have made it illegal to throw needles in the trash, was impractical.

“If we tell everybody that they have to take it back, how do they do it? We don’t have a system in place,” he said. “If there are costs to set something up, who’s going to pay for it?”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
mhhetling@centralmaine.com