Reader question: How to dispose of unused medications

A reader sent us the following question:

“A family member is taking medications for a long term illness. Periodically, the medication is changed. We have ended up with many partial bottles of medications and empty bottles. The prescription bottles have info on it that you wouldn’t necessarily want to get in the wrong hands if you just threw it in the trash as well as old meds. What is a good way to dispose of these?”

When I was younger, I dumped old medicines down the toilet and flushed them. Just so we’re clear, this was the WRONG thing to do. I had no idea that medications (prescription and over-the-counter drugs) are hazardous waste, which they are, and I was just polluting the environment unwittingly. Shame on me.

I have learned my lesson, however, and can offer some advice to you on this issue:

  • DON’T flush unused medications down the toilet or wash them down the sink.
  • Many pharmacies and doctor’s offices have pharmaceutical take-back programs. Call before you go, but this is a simple option if you’re headed to the pharmacy anyway to pick up a new prescription.
  • The EPA suggests that you black out with a permanent marker your personal information and your doctor’s information on the container, and then take your unused medications to your local hazardous waste facility. To find your local facility, check out the interactive map on the EPA website.
  • Look at the printed material accompanying your medications to see if there are special disposal instructions. In some cases, the FDA advises what procedure to use. The list of special drugs can be found at the bottom of this page if you have inadvertently discarded your original printed materials.
  • If you live in an extremely rural area miles away from a pharmacy and hazardous waste facility, as a last resort, follow this advice from the state of Florida.

I hope that this advice is helpful. This is also a good opportunity to remind everyone to regularly clean out your medicine chest for health, safety and decluttering reasons!

5 Comments for “Reader question: How to dispose of unused medications”

  1. posted by Randy Peterman on

    Ha! I used to work at a pharmacy in High School and we just flushed them. Of course we didn’t know much about environmentalism – it was just this foreign concept for nuts rather than a lifestyle and a cultural scenario. Now I hate to put anything in the actual trash can and want to recycle it 🙂 I’m glad times have changed.

  2. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    For those Canadian Readers, pharmacies in every province now have bins where customers can return unused and expired medications. You may have to give liquid medication to the pharmacist in person as some of the containers do not accept liquids. I have never met a pharmacist who refused to take things.
    Please protect the environment. Don’t flush or toss medications in the trash!

  3. posted by JT on

    Good info to know. A loved one died last year and Hospice had us flush the meds down the toilet which didnt seem right to me but I figured they most certainly would know what is best. Guess not.

  4. posted by Anamika on

    It’s amazing how ignorant some folks still are and still flush down prescription medicines (not referring to the posts here). I hope all pharmacies accept unused medicines for proper disposal since patients usually have other things to worry about.

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