Living with Chronic Pain

The Proper Disposal of Medications in The United States


Most households have some type of expired medication taking up space in a medicine cabinet. People tend to keep expired, discontinued or unneeded medications because they simply don’t know how to properly dispose of them. However, there are several ways to safely and responsibly dispose of medications, such as drug take-back programs, flushing medication, or disposing of medication in the trash.

Drug take-back programs

Drug take-back events are held to safely dispose of unwanted medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. In some areas, certain locations accept medications daily, while other areas have annual take-back events.

The DEA sponsors an annual “National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.” This program is helpful if local pharmacies do not regularly accept unwanted medications or the local garbage collection service does not offer an option for hazardous waste.

Take-back programs are the safest, most responsible, and most environmentally friendly way to dispose of medications. If a take-back program is not accessible or a medication needs immediate disposal, two other options are available for disposal of medications: flushing or disposing in the trash.

Flushing of medication

In general, medications should not be regularly flushed or poured down drains; it is unknown how this affects the environment. Medication residue may pollute the local water supply and adversely affect fish and other wildlife.

When medications need immediate disposal to avoid potential harm, flushing may be an option. However, flushing should only be done if the medication-information leaflet recommends it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration provides a list regarding disposal options for certain medications on their website.

Disposing of medication in the trash

While a drug take-back event is the optimal choice for medication disposal, sometimes it just isn't possible to get to one. Although it’s not the ideal choice, medications (other than the medications on the FDA flush list) can be placed in the household trash.

Steps to properly dispose of medication (over-the-counter or prescription, solid or liquid) or supplemental vitamins in the trash include the following:

  1. Empty all medications from their original containers and mix them with an unpleasant substance. Examples of unappealing substances include cat litter, dirt, coffee grounds or anything that makes the mixture unappealing, especially to children or pets. This also disguises medications from drug seekers that may search through the trash.
  2. Put the mixture in a sealable container, such as a plastic zipper bag, lidded empty coffee can, disposable lidded container, or any container that prevents leakage.
  3. Place the container in the trash.
  4. Make sure all personal information on original prescription bottles is unreadable or removed and torn apart to avoid any possible fraudulent acts with identity or privacy.

Why dispose of expired, discontinued or unneeded medications?

It is important to dispose of expired, discontinued or unneeded medications for several reasons:

  • Expired medications may no longer be as effective, or the ingredients may be altered, making them unsafe for use.
  • Storing unneeded or discontinued medications can lead to accidental ingestion of the old medication, leading to improper treatment of the health condition involved.
  • It is especially important to keep medications updated in case of an emergency; a family member or emergency medical technician (EMT) may take all the medications (current or not) in the house to the emergency room (ER) doctors. This could lead to improper treatment.
  • Risk of accidental ingestion by children or pets.
  • Risk of overdose, theft, misuse, or illegal abuse.
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