How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

Pills on medicine cabinet shelf.
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Proper drug disposal is an environmental issue. If not done correctly, you might contribute to water contamination or create a health hazard for children or pets. If you have any expired or unused medications such as arthritis medications, opioids, or other drugs, it's imperative that you dispose of your unwanted medications properly. Unused drugs are considered a toxic form of household hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Don't Flush Unused Medications Down the Toilet

Many people have likely done this without thinking twice, but experts say this method has potentially harmful effects on the environment. Disposal via the toilet takes your drugs into the local sewage system, where it might not be fully removed by water treatment plants. Released back into a river, the drug can end up in drinking water and in the flesh of fish. Even minute quantities of medications in drinking water have unknown effects on those who consume it.

The exception is for medications that the FDA recommends for disposal by flushing. These are drugs that pose so much danger to your family or pets that they must not be kept any longer than needed, as even one dose could be fatal. If you don't have an immediate take-back program, the FDA recommends flushing them for safety.

Don't Pour Them Down the Sink

This is no better than flushing them down the toilet. The drugs still end up in the same place—the water supply. It's even worse if your home uses a septic system. Experts say drugs can leach into the local water table, eventually coming out in a nearby lake or stream, or even out onto your own property where pets, livestock, or wildlife could be at risk.

Do Properly Dispose of Them in the Trash

Safety experts strongly discourage simply tossing medications into the trash where children or pets can find them. Your trash will eventually make it to a local landfill, where your medications could still have the potential to leach out. Instead, crush and mix unused medications with used coffee grounds, kitty litter, sawdust, dirt, or flour. This may help keep your medications from being taken accidentally ingested by a child or pet.

Many municipal or local trash services now have local household waste facilities where you can safely drop off your medications for incineration. Call your local trash service for options in your area.

Do Return Them to Your Pharmacy

This is a good option if your pharmacy will do it, but they are not required to take back your unused medications. Some pharmacies and drugstore chains sponsor regular "clean out your medicine cabinet" drives where customers can return old, expired, or unused medications, supplements, and other over-the-counter products. They may also have disposal kiosks in the pharmacy where you can drop off unused medications. Call your local drugstore or pharmacy for options in your area.

Should You Return Them to Your Doctor?

This is another good option. However, just like pharmacists, not all physicians or doctors will do it. Some may hesitate. Some may not be fully prepared to safely handle the process. Call ahead to see if your rheumatologist offers safe medication disposal methods.

What to Consider

Consider all your options for safer, environmentally-friendly disposal of your unused medications. Bear in mind that proper medication disposal is still an emerging environmental issue. Even experts and officials differ on what should be done about the problem. Your disposal options can and will vary by your location or region.

Additionally, when disposing of prescription medication packaging, it's important to scratch out all your personal information on any empty containers to protect your identity and privacy.

Also, some newer biologic drugs are injectable, which means there is a needle to dispose of properly. Don't just fling it into the wastebasket. Use the biohazard container provided with the drug and follow instructions.

A Word From Verywell

A little persistence, preparation, and planning will be worth your effort. Your best option is to find out if your area has periodic drug take-back events, such as the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, or locate your nearest household hazardous waste facility. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) registers hospitals, pharmacies, and law enforcement locations in some areas to collect unused medications and to conduct drug take-back day events. To find out if there is an authorized collector in your community, call the DEA at 1-800-882-9539 or visit their website. 

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