Environmental innovation Featured

10:20am EDT June 20, 2011
David P. Tusa, President and CEO, Sharps Compliance Inc. David P. Tusa, President and CEO, Sharps Compliance Inc.

David P. Tusa didn’t like seeing 3 billion medical syringes end up in landfills, groundwater streams, even playgrounds and beaches every year. He didn’t like hearing stories about the 800,000 people accidentally stuck by these needles.

As president and CEO of Sharps Compliance Inc., a Houston company that develops solutions to manage and dispose of medical waste and unused medication, Tusa knew he could change those stories.

“We need to better educate this country and recognize the issue,” Tusa says. “It’s just going to take more and more incidents where some sort of life-altering disease was contracted by someone who was sitting, say, on an airplane, reached back to grab the seatbelt and they’re stuck because (someone) placed the syringe in the seat.”

Tusa has been on a PR trail informing people about the problem as well as Sharps’ solutions. But frankly, even when people disposed syringes properly, he still wasn’t satisfied. The solution itself was inefficient, so to really solve the problem he had to innovate as well as inform.

“Home health care companies were sending trucks and drivers to people’s homes to pick up these little red containers with the syringes in them,” Tusa says. “It was not very economical to do business. We came up with a way to have the medical waste transported to our treatment facility using the mail. You don’t have to send out an additional truck and driver. You can imagine what the environmental impact is when using a mail truck that’s already out there every day.”

That makes medical waste disposal as easy as a trip to the post office — at about half the price of traditional pickup. Sharps’ innovative, sustainable solutions don’t just benefit customers; they’re actually fueled by their green initiatives in the first place.

“Virtually all of them will have their green initiatives, social responsibility, sustainability (online),” Tusa says. “When we’re calling on a large pharmaceutical manufacturer, we look to their green initiatives and say, ‘Look, you have green initiatives in place. What a great way to start, right here. You can protect your patients, you can protect the environment by making the proper disposal of syringes available to your patients.’”

In fact, because he looked to customer goals for ideas to expand his business, Tusa realized it wasn’t enough just to provide a cheaper disposal option through the mail. As customers turned greener, it forced Sharps to push sustainability even further to stay ahead as a service provider.

That led Tusa beyond disposal to think about where waste went — landfills — and how he could keep it out. The answer was Sharps’ Waste Conversion Process, where red polyethylene containers full of contaminated syringes are sealed, sterilized, shredded and pelletized. The pellets, trademarked PELLA-DRX, are used in high-energy industrial processes where the organic portion acts as fuel and the inorganic portion becomes part of the end product, such as cement.

Innovation like that is one more reason for eco-conscious customers to choose vendors on the leading edge of sustainability.

“We just try to align our goals with their goals and look how we can best change our practices to be much more green — consistent with the customer’s initiatives,” Tusa says. “You really just have to look at every step of your operating process. Look (for) ways that are more environmentally sensitive, everything from the small things of recycling cans and papers in the office to big things, like literally changing your processes as we did.”

Tusa takes a green approach to everything at Sharps, from motion detectors on lights to the cardboard compactor behind the building to PELLA-DRX itself, because he sees small things adding up. But there’s a crucial prerequisite to meet before you can take the tiniest steps toward corporate sustainability — and it has nothing to do with the environment.

“A lot of it is just mindset,” he says. “If you can change the way that you do business and be more environmentally sensitive, then you’re all the better. You’ve got to be flexible and dynamic. If you’re not — if you’re a company that’s stuck in your ways and you’re really bureaucratic and less flexible — it’s going to be really difficult to be successful in this marketplace.”

The culture at Sharps is one where, as Tusa says, “we carry each other’s briefcases” and “make decisions in the hallway,” where he rewards good internal ideas with $100 gift cards and grants customer requests even if it incurs extra costs for Sharps. So when customers and employees alike started suggesting ideas that happened to be green, those became part of the conversation like the rest.

“My motto in the company is: I don’t want to talk about why we can’t do something; I want to talk about how we’re going to do it,” Tusa says. “We just had a phenomenal idea from a customer, and one of our regulatory people was like, ‘Well, I don’t know.’

“Well, you know what, go figure it out. And we did, we figured out a way to make it work with regulations to meet the needs of the customer. That’s the way you’ve got to be in this day and age; being bureaucratic and stodgy just doesn’t work.”

As a result, customer-focused innovation drives more than environmental responsibility at Sharps — it drives business. More than 22,000 retail pharmacies nationwide, including Walgreens, Rite Aid and Kroger, use Sharps’ medication disposal program. The company has removed more than 624 million syringes from the solid waste stream and diverted more than123,000 pounds of unused medications from landfills or public water supplies.

Still, with the bar set at 3 billion improperly disposed syringes and 200 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste, Tusa sees nothing but growth potential. He plans to tap into that by simply staying ahead of customer initiatives with innovation.

“The more business we do with our customers and as we’re more creative with our customers and come up with more ideas for our customers, it’s going to allow us to further penetrate that market,” he says. “And if we can launch some innovative programs that capture those syringes thrown in the trash and make sure they’re properly disposed of, then we all win.”

How to reach: Sharps Compliance Inc., (800) 772-5657 or www.sharpsinc.com