How to Properly Throw out Prescription Drugs

When you need to dispose of prescription medications, how can you do it safely? You may have heard that flushing medications may pollute water and be bad for fish. You may also be worried about pets and children getting into garbage, or human scavengers looking for drugs in your trash.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has guidelines and advice for disposing of prescription medications. They can help curb accidental overdoses and drug abuse, as well as protecting our streams and rivers.

Somebody throwing away their medicine
 Bumblee_Dee / Getty Images

Look for Disposal Instructions on the Label

Your prescription may already be labeled with information on how to dispose of it, or instructions may be listed on the information sheet you received with the prescription.

Medicine Take-Back Programs and Local Sites

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has authorized collectors who can be given your medications and be trusted to dispose of them securely and responsibly. Often these sites are the pharmacies at retail stores, hospitals, and clinics that you may be visiting anyway.

They may have a drop box handy for disposal. In some locations, the local law enforcement agency is an authorized collector. Call 1-800-882-9539 or visit the DEA website to find a location. Some pharmacies will also assist you in mailing the drugs for disposal.

How to Safely Dispose of Prescription Drugs in the Trash

If you can't take the medications for disposal and want to put them into the trash, take these steps:

  • Remove the drugs from the original container. The bottles are a red flag for anyone looking for drugs in your trash. Be sure to scratch out any identifying information on the label, including your name and the name of the prescription drug. You don't want scavengers knowing what drugs may be in your house.
  • Mix drugs with undesirable refuse and place it in a sealed bag. Guidelines suggest mixing medications with items like used coffee grounds or cat litter and placing them in a sealed bag, empty can, or jar. Now dispose of this container in a trash can. This extra step can prevent accidental overdose by children and pets and also reduce drug theft. The sealed bag will prevent leakage.

Is It Always Wrong to Flush Medications Down the Toilet?

Unless otherwise stated on the label or in the drug information pamphlet given to you by your pharmacist, do not flush unwanted prescription medication down the toilet. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researches how prescription drugs affect U.S. waterways.

Some drugs can be very dangerous if accidentally eaten by children or pets, so flushing immediately is recommended to prevent this. Fentanyl patches are one example. If a drug is one of the few that should be flushed, this should be listed on the label, and you can check the FDA website list.

Don't Give Drugs to Your Friends or Family for Use

Prescription drugs are prescribed just for you and your medical condition. It can be dangerous for friends or family members to take them, even for what you think is the same condition. They may be the wrong drug, the wrong dose, the wrong schedule, or interact with other medications and supplements they are taking. Friends don't give friends drugs.

For more information on disposal guidelines, visit the FDA Safe Disposal of Medications.

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Article Sources
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  • "Federal Government Issues New Guidelines for Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs." 20 FEB 2007. Office of National Drug Control Policy
  • "How to dispose of Unused Medications," US Food and Drug Administration.