Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

No place for needle litter

Dear friends,

Today we decided to share with you a report on a recent Subbotnik –  when ARF and our friends and participants drug users decided to help clean the city from the used needles and syringes. One of the greatest problems for our work is that there is no recycling system for used syringes – and we decided to look for the solutions to help clean the city.  This article was written by a friendly journalist who attended the Subbotnik.



Activists of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice and participants of the Harm Reduction Moscow project finished the last step of a used syringe collection campaign in several areas of Moscow. On Tuesday April 29 Maxim Malyshev, the campaign coordinator, brought the collected syringes to the Central Scientific Institute of Epidemiology of the Russian Federal Service for Consumer Surveillance to Protect Consumer Rights (Rospotrebnadzor) that promised to dispose of those syringes.

The Foundation’s employees explained why they were collecting needles on Moscow streets and how difficult it was to get the authorities to assist in the disposal process. Saturday evening, employees of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation (ARF) gathered close to the subway station Maryino. They explained this choice thus: “This pharmacy sells Tropicamide freely. Drug users often inject the stuff here.” Tropicamide is the name of a brand of eyedrops; it is a pharmaceutical drug used by drug users. It must be sold on prescription, and pharmacies must document sales. At the appointed time an elderly man with a bundle came up to ARF’s employees. It was Sasha, a drug user and a long-time friend of the Foundation. “Here’s what I’ve collected – about 40 needles, not one less,” he said proudly, giving them his bundle. In response he got medicines, clean syringes, and condoms.

“In principle, this is how a harm reduction program should work; those programs are banned in our country. In other countries drug users can freely exchange their syringes for new ones, which helps reduce risks – for example, HIV. Nevertheless, here this practice is prohibited,” said Timur Madatov, ARF’s lawyer. ARF’s campaign called Snowdrop was assisted by two volunteers – 38-year old Rita and a 32-year old man in sagging jeans and large sneakers; he introduced himself as Ilya the Streetcar. Both have been using drugs for several years. Ilya, whose parents live close to the subway station, showed us where there most of the syringes could be found. Used “thorns”, as Rita calls them, are scattered around apartment buildings, along pedestrian walkways, on the lawn. Asya, an employee of ARF, handed out rubber gloves. She had long metal tweezers and a 1.3 gallon water bottle used to store needles. Ilya took everyone to his building, saying hello to his neighbours on the way. ARF’s employees got to the 10th floor and went to the stairs where the cleaning operation was to take place. They saw used syringes everywhere: on the floor, hidden inside radiators and walls. “Rita, don’t you touch the needle,” Asya asked. She was watching the volunteer remove a syringe from a hole in the wall with her bare hands. Rita objected and continued. “But there are different types of hepatitis,” Asya insisted.


The activists kept finding used syringes virtually at every stairwell. On the second floor, a sign was spray-painted on the wall: “This place isn’t for junkies.” Timur Madatov, ARF’s lawyer, explains: “We wanted to begin disposing of syringes a few years ago. We called many offices and in each of them they told us we should contact another office. Then we realized that calling them was useless, and began sending out official requests. Some of those offices even took the time to answer our requests.” The Foundation sent one of the letters to Infectious Hospital No. 2 which refused to accept the collected syringes and suggested that ARF talk to the Moscow Health Department. The department was not willing to dispose of used syringes, specifying that medical waste should be disposed of “in a centralized fashion” by a special licensed organization. “According to the current sanitary regulations, used needles and syringes collected on the streets of Moscow during the campaign are not classified as medical waste,” the department responded. In its official response it emphasized that “the order of disposing of household garbage in Moscow is not within the Department’s mandate.” The Moscow Centre for Epidemiology suggested that ARF address “specialized organizations that recycle and remove medical waste,” but it did not specify which organizations those are. The Foundation also appealed to the Moscow Health Department’s Methodological Unit for Epidemiology, the Moscow AIDS Centre, and the Central Scientific Institute of Epidemiology. Finally, Rospotrebnadzor’s Central Scientific Institute of Epidemiology agreed to dispose of the needles collected on Moscow’s streets. It recommended that the activists pack the syringes in a heat-resistant plastic bag and a cardboard box. As the institute explained afterward, these measures were recommended in order to protect the Foundation’s employees.

ARF President Anya Sarang explained: “It’s crazy that we had to spend so much time to find an office that could dispose of the syringes. In civilized countries, this wouldn’t be a problem – there are needle exchange programs where drug users can pick up special containers and return the collected needles; this isn’t complicated. They come to harm reduction programs because they need syringes and communication.” According to her, in some countries such containers and disposal boxes are considered standard practice. “My friend saw these special containers for syringes in Australian Parliament. It’s strange that in Moscow it took us two years to find a way to get rid of the syringes in an organized fashion. I wouldn’t even mention what regular drug users have to go through,” Sarang said.


The Snowdrop campaign events took place close to several subway stations – in Maryino, Tekstilschiki, and Pervomayskaya. According to the participants, in some areas “there were not enough bottles to collect the needles.” Maxim Malyshev, the campaign organizer, said that Rospotrebnadzor’s Central Scientific Institute of Epidemiology promised to help with syringe disposal in the future. “Syringes are considered dangerous waste, and they can’t be thrown out with the garbage. However, getting HIV through those syringes is highly unlikely – the virus is not very tough, and it requires many conditions to penetrate our bodies. But getting hepatitis C is more likely; about 80 percent of drug users have it. It’s much tougher, and just a small amount of the virus is needed to get infected. But objectively, the aesthetical inconvenience of seeing used syringes is a bigger problem for people,“ Malyshev said. He was planning to continue collecting medical waste in the future. Malyshev said: “Since we have found a place where we can bring used syringes we can start collecting them regularly. But we need to find a place where we could store our inventory and where it will be convenient for our volunteers to come. Even regular residents can participate if they want; they only need to tell us where there are a lot of needles. And we can help depending on our abilities.”

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