A police officer stood behind a man who was counting a handful of tiny blue pills on Saturday, April 21 at St. Peter’s Cathedral on Baraga Street. Thousands of prescription pills exchanged hands but there was no illegal activity. Instead, it was part of an environmental initiative to clean up unused pharmaceuticals to keep them out of the Upper Peninsula waters.
The Earth Keepers, an interfaith environmental organization, in conjunction with the Superior Watershed Partnership and the Cedar Tree Foundation, collected over-the-counter medications, as well as personal care products, across the Upper Peninsula as part of its third annual Clean Sweep.
And as for the police presence: When controlled substances, such as prescriptions drugs, are involved, law enforcement has to make sure the substances don’t slip into the wrong hands. An estimated one ton of medicines and personal care products were turned in around the U.P., and police said the thousands of pills had a street value of more than $500,000.
The Clean Sweep began in 2005 when the Earth Keepers collected hazardous waste from U.P. residents. The following year, the group gathered electronic waste to be disposed of properly. This year, the Earth Keeper’s Clean Sweep encompassed nine denominations and religions, as well as the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community. There were 140 parishes involved and 19 drop-off points around the U.P.
“We have collection sites from the east end to the west end (of the U.P.),” said Jennifer Simula, the leader of the NMU Earth Keepers Student Team. “It’s really a bridge between the faith communities and environmental activists.”
The Earth Keepers Student Team was founded in January 2006 as a way to get NMU students involved in the initiative, Simula said.
The Earth Keepers chose to collect pharmaceuticals this year because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that the medicines were seeping into America’s water supply. For years, people had been instructed to flush old medicines down the toilet, but now trace amounts of the drugs are appearing in rivers and lakes. This has caused problems for amphibians, and may be linked to some health problems, said Kyra Fillmore, a Marquette resident and Earth Keepers communications facilitator.
“It’s a way to help keep the Great Lakes clean and get this stuff properly disposed of,” said Fillmore, who has been with Earth Keepers for three years.
She added that the Clean Sweep is not only about collecting old medicine, it is also about weaving environmental stewardship into the everyday lives of people, and especially churches.
“We’re trying to build an Earth Keeper culture within church communities,” she said.
“I like this idea of having the faith community take the initiative on environmental problems,” she said. “Everyone in the Upper Peninsula has a responsibility to the Great Lakes, and bringing awareness to church communities works toward helping the Earth that is a gift from God.”
Although the NMU Earth Keepers Student Team was involved in the collection, Simula was quick to note that the organization’s membership ranges from eight to 80.
“I joined Earth Keepers because my friends talked me into it, but when I went to the first meeting, I thought it was an interesting way to help the environment,” Sarah Kinnaird-Heether, a junior zoology major, said.
Kinnaird-Heether manned the St. Peter’s Cathedral drop off point with Ellie Luce, a junior elementary education major.
“I think [the Clean Sweep] is important because a lot of college students don’t think saving the environment is important, and I think they will regret that when they’re older,” Luce said.
“I think anything you can do is a positive,” she added. “As long as you’re taking a step (toward helping the environment), it’s not quantitative, it’s qualitative.”