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How To Practice Safe Medication Disposal

Today more people are aware that old and unused drugs can be dangerous to keep around the house. Leftover drugs may be stolen and misused, look like candy to a curious child, eaten by a pet, or taken by a forgetful loved one.

But, getting rid of your old prescription and over-the-counter drugs safely can be a challenge. Flushing medicines down the toilet used to be recommended but now it is not.

In the U.S., no national policy exists for safe medication disposal. A few states and cities have laws that spell out how medicines should be handled, but most do not. In Canada and Great Britain, every pharmacy takes back all types of medicines.1,2

What can you do to dispose of your unwanted medications safely?

National Take Back Day

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts 2 events a year to take back unwanted pills, patches, and vaping devices. National Take Back Day usually occurs in April or May and again in October. Thousands of sites are set-up around the country where you can drop off unused or out-of-date medicines. These sites do not take drugs in liquid form, inhalers, nebulizers, needles, or auto-injectors such as used Epi-pens.2

Year-round collection spots

If you miss National Take Back Day, or have medicines that cannot be disposed of through that program, you have other options. Some drug stores, hospitals, and clinics have medicine drop boxes that take liquid meds as well as pills. Some cities offer disposal boxes in police or fire stations. Rarely do these disposal boxes take sharps, inhalers, or nebulizers. Medicines collected at these locations are taken to a special waste facility and burned or put into a medical waste landfill.

In general, people living in large cities can find a location easily. People living in small towns and rural areas may have to drive 25 miles or more to drop off their old drugs. The DEA hosts a website where you can search for the nearest drug drop off location by zip code.2-4

You may also be able to take your unwanted drugs to a local hazardous waste facility.

Mail-back programs

Several companies offer mail-back programs to collect unwanted medicines. Not all drugs are accepted by these programs. Some mail-back programs charge a fee or require the consumer to pay for shipping. Your local police department, pharmacy, or doctor may offer mail-back packages with pre-paid postage.

Several drug companies sponsor mail-back programs for sharps that are often free of charge.3,4

Safe medication disposal at home

If you do not live near a drop-off point, you can dispose of your drugs at home. The steps to dispose of medicines are:

  1. Scratch out your personal information on the bottles, and throw out or recycle the container.
  2. Place the leftover medicine in a plastic bag or plastic container. Do not crush tablets or capsules.
  3. Mix pills or liquid with something unpleasant like used kitty litter or coffee grounds. You want to discourage any person or animal from going through your trash to take the medicine.
  4. Seal or close the bag or container to prevent leaks.
  5. Toss the container out with your regular trash.2

You should not flush drugs down the toilet or dissolve in the sink. Most water treatment plants are not set up to process drugs out of the water supply. This means that flushed drugs end up in our environment and can harm animals and plants.

Disposing of used needles and injectors

Used needles, lancets, syringes, and auto-injectors (sharps) must be disposed of differently from pills. You want to protect others from accidental jabs.

Your doctor’s office, pharmacy, or hospital may take containers filled with used sharps. Some police and fire stations, health departments and community groups also offer safe medication disposal. Some drug companies offer mail-back programs. You can also buy a machine that destroys sharps at home. Search for “needle melting device” to learn more.

At home sharps disposal

If you do not have any other way to get rid of used sharps, you can follow these steps:

  1. Find a heavy-duty plastic container with a lid. A laundry detergent jug or bleach bottle is strong enough. Plastic soda bottles and plastic grocery bags are not.
  2. When about three-quarters full, screw on the lid and cover the lid with packing tape or duct tape.
  3. Label the container “Do Not Recycle.”
  4. Throw out in the trash unless your state laws require a different disposal method.
  5. Sharps should never be recycled or placed in the same disposal box as medicine.3

Go to SafeNeedleDisposal.org to find out whether your state or city requires you follow other steps to dispose of sharp medical waste.

Disposing of inhalers

Old inhalers can be the hardest medication to dispose of safely. That is because the pressurized containers may explode if punctured, crushed, or thrown into a fire. Ask your health care team or pharmacist about ways to dispose of your used inhalers locally. Your city or county hazardous waste facility may be the only option.4

If you throw your inhalers and nebulizers into the regular trash, be sure to enclose them in a plastic bag. This prevents leftover medicine from leaking into the landfill.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Government of Canada. Safe disposal of prescription drugs. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/safe-disposal-prescription-drugs.html#s1a. Accessed 11/19/19.
  2. DEA National Rx Take Back. Available at: https://takebackday.dea.gov. Accessed 11/19/19.
  3. SafeNeedleDisposal.org. Available at: https://safeneedledisposal.org. Accessed 11/19/19.
  4. Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Safe Drug Disposal: A Guide for Communities Seeking Solutions. Available at: MAP-Safe-Drug-Disposal-Guide.pdf. Accessed 11/19/19.

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