How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

Pills on medicine cabinet shelf.
Tetra Images/Getty Images

It happens for a variety of reasons. You end up with a medicine cabinet full of expired or unused arthritis medications or other types of drugs. This is considered a toxic form of household hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Tips for Safe Drug Disposal

Proper drug disposal is an environmental issue. If not done correctly, you might contribute to contamination of the water or create a hazard for children or pets. Know your safe options. Learn how to dispose of your unwanted medications properly.

Should You Flush Them Down the Toilet?

You've probably done this, 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. 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 ones 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, they recommend flushing them for safety.

Should You Pour Them Down the Sink?

This is no better than flushing them down the toilet. They still end up in the same place. It's even worse if your home uses a septic system. Experts say drugs can leach into the local water table, eventually coming out somewhere, such as a nearby lake or stream, or even out onto your own property where pets, livestock, or wildlife could be at risk. Use this method only with the drugs the FDA says should be disposed of by flushing.

Should You Throw Them in the Trash?

Safety experts strongly discourage throwing them 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. 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.

Should You 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. 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.

If you must dispose of your unused medications in the trash, you may want to place a little water into solid medications or solidify liquid medicines with a little kitty litter, sawdust or flour. This may help keep your medications from being taken accidentally by a child or pet.

Also, the 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 recycling events, such as the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, or locate your nearest household hazardous waste facility.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.