You may find yourself with unused medications for a variety of reasons. For example, your doctor could make a change to your prescription, or you may have medications that have expired.
How do you properly dispose of those medications? You have three options.
Donate them using repository programs
In the U.S., some states have programs for medication redistribution. Many of these are conducted at the facility level, allowing pharmacies and nursing homes, for example, to find alternatives to destroying usable medications.
However, some states have drug repository programs that will accept medications from individuals, as long as the medications are in their original sealed and tamper-evident packaging (such as blister-cards) and won’t expire in the near future. Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin are three of the states that have such programs. You can search online to see if your state has a similar program. Note that these programs cannot accept controlled substances, which include some pain, sleep, and anxiety medications.
Safely dispose of them using medication take-back programs
Take-back programs are a great way to safely dispose of expired or excess medications. In my area, there are drop-off containers at many police stations. Other locales in the U.S. use boxes from the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (with its Rx Drug Drop Box) or MedReturn, which have box locator functions on their websites. Some pharmacies also accept medications, and Dispose My Meds has a pharmacy locator.
You can also search for medications at Earth911 to find a disposal site near you. And you could check with your trash/recycling service provider to see what options are available in your area.
The Drug Enforcement Agency, along with local law enforcement organizations, used to hold an annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. Because there are now more options for disposing of these medications — the law was changed in 2014 to allow for more authorized collectors — the DEA has no plans for future take-back days.
Safely dispose of them at home
The FDA has instructions on how to safely dispose of medications as part of your household trash if no better option is available:
- Mix medicines (do not crush tablets or capsules) with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, kitty litter, or used coffee grounds.
- Place the mixture in a container such as a sealed plastic bag.
- Throw the container in your household trash.
- Scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medicine packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container.
The FDA also provides a short list of medications that can be especially harmful if used by anyone other than the person for whom they were prescribed. If these specific medicines cannot be disposed of quickly using a take-back program, the FDA recommends flushing them down the toilet as soon as they are no longer needed. Specific disposal information may have come with the medicine, but the FDA also links to that information if you don’t have it. This is the only time when flushing is recommended. In general, flushing is strongly discouraged for reasons that the Environmental Protection Agency explains (PDF).