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:

  • DO NOT 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 search tool on the Earth911 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 on this page if you have inadvertently discarded your original printed materials.

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 uncluttering reasons!

 

This post was originally published in July 2007.

19 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!
    Thanks

  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.

  5. posted by Carol Mac on

    In our community, the local Sheriff’s Department has a drop box for prescription drugs – you just drop the bottle(s) in their receptacle and they’ll properly dispose of them.

  6. posted by Irene on

    Easiest way to get rid of old medication is to take it to the nearest hospital. All hospitals have a dump site for unused meds. It’s free, it’s anonymous, it’s open 24/7.

  7. posted by Kristen on

    My parents were in home hospice care. After they died, the hospice nurses provided us with a small ziplock bag of kitty litter. They told us to put the pills in with the kitty litter, add some water to make a sludge and let it sit overnight. The kitty litter absorbs the toxins and you can put the ziplock bag in the trash. You can use coffee grounds if you don’t have access to kitty litter.

  8. posted by Sean Sosik-Hamor on

    I ran into this problem while helping clean out my Grandmother’s house in late 2012. Over the course of many years my Dad and Grandmother had managed to fill a laundry basket with around 60 pounds of expired medication. I called ahead and the local Sheriff’s Department said that I could drop off the medication anytime during business hours.

    Unrelated to medication but they also accepted all of the unused ammunition that had been stored in the house that would have cost more to ship or check as luggage than it was worth.

  9. posted by NoAlias on

    Coincidentally, disposing of unused medicine is my immediate concern. I had surgery 3 months ago and was, of course, given a narcotic pain prescription. I filled the prescription but didn’t need to take any of the pills. Now that I’ve released from doctor care, I want to get the narcotic out of the house.

    So I went to the pharmacy to find out what to do. They looked at me like I had 3 heads! Apparently nobody has ever asked to dispose of medicine? The pharmacist had no ideas and the woman behind the counter even said ‘can’t you just flush it down the toilet?’ Tomorrow I’m off to the sheriff’s department.

    This shouldn’t be as hard as it seems to be! The news is full of reports on the opiate crisis, and I can’t turn back unwanted opioids? Worst case, our county will have a hazardous waste collection day in a few weeks, for old paint cans and other such materials. Maybe drugs count as hazardous waste….

  10. posted by Debbie on

    Look into drug take-back/disposal days, usually put on by the local Sheriff’s department. They take all expired medications and dispose of them properly. We recently had one and were able to get rid of a bag of expired meds that way. I’ve also taken some back to the pharmacy before.

  11. posted by grace on

    I had the same problem when my parents moved into a care facility. Regular drugs went to the pharmacy but all the opiates had to go to the police department. I just took everything to the pharmacy and they sorted out all the ones that they could not take. It made a much smaller bag that went to the police.

  12. posted by NoAlias on

    UPDATE: I called the Sheriff’s office and yes, they have a collection box for unwanted medicines. So, I went to the office and there is a self-serve drop box (like a fast-food restaurant trash) and a sign with directions. Empty pill bottle contents a clear zip-lock baggie (provided at the box) and drop it into the shoot. Very easy.

    Funny thing is, the outside of the collection box is painted with words crediting the local pharmacy with providing the collection box. THE SAME PHARMACY I WENT TO THAT DIDN’T KNOW WHAT I SHOULD DO TO DISPOSE OF THE PILLS!!

  13. posted by Nicki on

    Our police department has a drop box you can use at any time.

    However, it depends a lot on your state. There is a National Take Back day to take back old drugs.

    I echo, don’t flush them because they end up in our water supplies.

  14. posted by Emily Adams on

    I’m a pharmacist and have a couple other resources for you: check out local drop off boxes here: http://countitlockitdropit.org or see where your next biannual DEA Take Back location will be: https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/

  15. posted by AK on

    Call your trash company, city hall or county offices and see if they do a regular take-back day. We have one once every 3 months and they take RX drugs, e-cycle waste, and twice a year have one of the big shredding trucks there, so you can shred documents for free!

  16. posted by William Bryant on

    Our local police department has a drop off, no questions asked. When my father passed away we had many medications to dispose of, including narcotics from Hospice care.

    The police did have one suggestion when we called: bring the medications in their prescription bottles just in case you are pulled over or whatever on the way to the police station. So we did and then disposed of them in the box in the lobby for disposing of meds.

  17. posted by Michelle B. on

    Regarding personal information(names, addresses) on bottles: Some pharmacies use labels that darken or turn black when you hold the label over steam.

  18. posted by Susan on

    One more tip: I give expensive medications that are still properly sealed (e.g. in blisterpacks, unopened bottles etc.) and not expired to my GP. She usually knows of a patient who can use them. (Same with meds for my cat.)

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