How to Safely Dispose of Unused Medications

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 antidepressants, opioids, or other drugs, it's important that you dispose of these unwanted medications properly. Unused drugs are considered a toxic form of household hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Pills on medicine cabinet shelf
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What Not to Do with Unused Medications

There are some things you should never do with unused pills and other medications, including the following.

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. Dumping pills and other medications into the toilet takes your drugs into the local sewage system, where they might not be fully removed by water treatment plants.

Released into a river or other water source, 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 them.

The exception is for medications that the Food and Drug Administration (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 a drug take-back program in your area, the FDA recommends flushing medications 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. This practice is 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.

What to Do with Unused Medications

Proper disposal of unused medications should include the following actions.

Do Properly Dispose of Drugs 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 into the soil.

Instead, crush and mix unused medications with used coffee grounds, kitty litter, sawdust, dirt, or flour. This may help keep your medications from being 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 pharmacists are not required to take back your unused medications. Some pharmacies and drugstore chains sponsor regular "clean out your medicine cabinet" drives, when customers can return old, expired, or unused medications, supplements, and other over-the-counter (OTC) products.

Your pharmacy may also have disposal kiosks where you can drop off unused medications. Call your local drugstore or pharmacy for options in your area.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, usually held in the spring and fall. It also lists on its website local agencies that will take back drugs year-round.

Should You Return Unused Drugs to Your Doctor?

Your doctor's office is another good option. However, just like pharmacists, not all physicians will provide this service. Some may not be fully prepared to safely handle the process. Call ahead to see if your doctor 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 biologics and other drugs are injectable, which means there is a needle to be disposed of properly. Don't just fling used syringes into the wastebasket. Use the biohazard container provided with the drug or found at pharmacies and follow instructions on correct disposal.

A Word From Verywell

Proper disposal of unused medications protects people and the environment. A little persistence, preparation, and planning to find the best method of getting rid of old medications 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 DEA registers hospitals, pharmacies, and law enforcement agencies 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 800-882-9539 or visit the DEA website. Also, ask your pharmacist or doctor to see if they provide an option for returning unused meds.

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