MILWAUKEE - Don't be so quick to throw out that expired blood-pressure medication. Drug-disposal companies are taking outdated or recalled prescription drugs from pharmacies and manufacturers and incinerating them, generating energy.

Milwaukee-based Capital Returns Inc. created enough energy last year to power more than 220 homes for a year. To do that, it incinerated 6.5 million pounds of pills and other pharmaceuticals, which were sent from pharmacies and drug manufacturers around the country.

The company predicts that individuals, not just corporate clients, soon will be able to have their unwanted drugs incinerated, creating an even larger source of energy. Such a move, which the federal government must approve, would give people an alternative to flushing the often toxic substances down their toilets, possibly polluting the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency encourages local drug-collection programs to limit the amount of medication that makes it into the water supply, said Ben Grumbles, the assistant EPA administrator for water. Studies have indicated harm to fish, though not to humans, he said.

Federal approval needed

Incineration, when done properly, has a minimal effect on the environment. But federal approval could take years. In the meantime, pilot disposal programs are popping up around the country.

The push for the programs will grow as the population ages and people rely on more pharmaceuticals, said Len Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging. It just received an EPA grant to start a pilot program under which individuals will return drugs by mail.

The pharmaceutical-disposal industry - now used only by manufacturers and pharmacies - started in the early 1990s. Before that, pharmacies had to make returns themselves or wait for pharmaceutical companies to pick up unwanted drugs and handle destruction.

From the start, Capital Returns decided to use incineration plants that converted pharmaceuticals to energy as a means of limiting environmental impact, president Larry Hruska said.

Last year, it generated nearly 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to light up 220 homes for a year.

Capital Returns has 28 percent of the returns market, and expects a 20 percent increase in revenue this year, Hruska said. He would not give dollar figures for the company, a unit of privately owned GENCO Distribution System Inc. in Pittsburgh. There are about 40 medical-returns companies - called "reverse distributors" - registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to its Web site.

Plenty of drugs

Even though Capital Returns figures only about 1 percent of all drugs are returned, either because of recall or expiration, there are plenty to be had.

Day after day, trucks carrying millions of pharmaceuticals come to the company's headquarters, where Capital Returns' 600 workers unload them and scan them into a computer system. Companies can track their shipments online, which is especially important in the case of a recall, when the government must be assured of destruction.

The drugs travel to an incineration plant in Indianapolis run by Covanta Energy Corp., which sells the steam energy to a local utility. Hazardous materials are taken to an incinerator in Arkansas, which is licensed for their destruction.

Pharma Logistics Inc. of Mundelein, Ill., which takes drugs back from pharmacies, sends about 24,000 pounds of pharmaceuticals for disposal each week to the same incineration plant Capital Returns uses. President Mike Zaccaro said the company chose the plant because it generated energy. He said he figures that the entire industry disposes of about 16 million pounds of pharmaceuticals a year.

Covanta Energy has converted waste to energy for 20 years, using substances ranging from municipal sludge to everyday trash. It has incinerated pharmaceuticals since the mid-1990s, and now does such disposals at 21 of its 32 facilities, spokesman Derek Porter said.

Porter said pharmaceutical disposal was a small but growing part of the business.

Capital Returns is devising its own pilot program for consumers to mail back medications in a three-county area around Milwaukee.

States are starting to craft pilot programs as well, and some of them create energy. Washington state has tested return programs at pharmacies in a five-county area since last October. People return their unused drugs anonymously at pharmacies, where the pharmaceuticals eventually are incinerated and turned into energy, said Emma Johnson, resource efficiency coordinator for solid-waste programs in the state's Department of Ecology.