How to Properly Dispose of Unused Medications

Holding medecine

A concerning story was reported on the news recently about prescription drugs and the knowledge and competence (or lack thereof) of pharmacies that deal in such medicines. In early 2019, a secret shopper program run by medical professionals and researchers found that hundreds of pharmacies were giving out false information on how to dispose of opioid painkillers and antibiotics.

If we can’t trust our pharmacies to correctly inform us on how to get rid of unused medications, who can we trust? What is the correct data on how to safely and ethically dispose of prescription drugs?

The Story

A team of experts called on nearly 900 pharmacies over two months in early 2019. The researchers called pharmacies in California, pretending to be parents. The mission? Mainly to quiz pharmacy staff on how to dispose of unwanted medications. Also, one of the questions was to determine if such pharmacies offered take-back services, and if so, how the “parents” were supposed to go about dropping off their unused prescriptions.

Among the pharmacies called, 53 percent gave false information on how to dispose of antibiotics. Eighty-one percent gave incorrect information on how to dispose of opioids. And of all the pharmacies called, only 11 percent had drug take-back programs for antibiotics or opioids.

There are tens of thousands of pharmacies in the United States. These are the places where we get our medications, so it seems logical that these would be the places that we would return our unused medications. But if a pretty shocking majority of pharmacies do not offer take-back programs and if a substantial majority don’t even know how to ethically and safely dispose of unused meds, how can we know what to do with leftover, potentially dangerous medications in our homes?

Advice from the Food and Drug Administration

Medication disposal

When it comes to the safe disposal of prescription drugs, one organization to look to is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As it turns out, there are some pretty simple guidelines on safely getting rid of unused medicines:

  • The first step is to mix unused medicines with an unappealing substance, such as coffee grounds, cat litter, dirt, food waste, etc.
  • Next, seal the mixture in an air-tight, durable, sealed bag or container. The goal is to keep the medications sealed-in with the refuse so that they do not leak out and contaminate the environment.
  • Finally, dispose of the sealed container in the household trash.

Because the medications are sealed away in an assortment of other undesirables, it is unlikely that a drug seeker will find the medicines. And because the unused prescriptions are in a sealed container, they won’t be able to break down and contaminate the environment.

What About Flushing Drugs Down the Sink or Toilet?

Probably the most common question people ask when it comes to disposing of unused medicines is whether or not it’s okay to flush medications down the drain. And here we have some conflicting points of view.

The FDA insists that it is okay to flush some drugs down the drain. The FDA encourages people to do this with a very select few drugs, (think particularly dangerous substances like opioids). The FDA even went so far as to publish a paper suggesting that it was okay, from an environmental point of view, to flush meds. The FDA also published a list of flushable meds, encouraging people to flush these meds instead of throwing them out in the garbage, simply because the drugs involved are so dangerous that they simply cannot come back into human contact again.

On the other hand, most environmentalists would disagree that it's okay to flush meds. When we flush powerful drugs down the toilet or run them down the sink drain, we’re effectively putting those drugs into the water supply. Such substances eventually wind up in the environment, affecting ecosystems in a variety of adverse ways.

Some advocacy groups suggest that even disposing of meds in household trash is not really “safely” getting rid of such drugs (as drug seekers can still find disposed-of substances if they try hard enough). In fact, some state governments have gotten behind the idea that drug take-back programs are the only way to be safe and environmentally-conscious in drug disposal.

Prescription Drug Take-Back Day – A Safe and Eco-Friendly Approach to Drug Disposal

The Drug Enforcement Administration has found that millions of Americans misuse prescription drugs. But unlike with street drugs (where the classic image is of a drug user buying drugs from a dealer in a dark alley), research shows that prescription drug use is often made possible by medications left unused in home medicine cabinets.

On April 25th, 2020 (and again in October of this year), the DEA will host a nationwide “Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.” The event is put on by the DEA’s Diversion Control Division. The goal of the event is to encourage people all across the United States to turn in their unused pharmaceuticals so they can be disposed of properly. The program aims to provide safe, convenient, discreet, and responsible methods of drug disposal. DEA officers and other support staff also make an effort at such events to educate people on the potentially harmful nature of certain medications.

Since Take-Back Day only occurs twice per year, the DEA also offers information and resources on other organizations that provide year-round disposal options. Such resources are for those who want to get involved with Take-Back Day but who were not able to participate on the chosen day of the event.

If someone is not able to bring prescription drugs into a year-round disposal center, or if they miss a take-back day and they have meds that are on the flush list, they should go ahead and flush them per the FDA's instruction. The goal should be to seek a take-back program whenever possible in order to help safeguard the environment but to absolutely flush harmful meds if no take-back programs are available. It's very important that we get these drugs out of our homes.

Woman checking her medical cabinet

Prevention – One of the Key Strategies in Overcoming the Drug Problem

It seems that there are three main options for getting rid of unused medications. Take back programs, disposing of meds in household garbage, and flushing meds. Of those three, take-back programs offer the least risk for both drug seekers finding the meds (as compared to the household trash method) and damage to the environment (as compared to the flushing meds method).

However, prescription drug take-back programs are not always available in one’s immediate area. We have to remember that the priority here is that the drugs are disposed of. The fact that the drugs do get disposed of is more important than how they are disposed of. Whether you choose to take unused prescriptions to a take-back center, dispose of meds in household trash, or flush meds, keep in mind the importance of actually doing one of these steps. Remind yourself that every medication removed from a medicine cabinet is one less medication that could be misused, one less medication that could cause harm, one less medication that a child or teen could come across.

Disposing of unused meds is one of the most important steps we can take in the prevention of drug abuse. Prevention refers to any action taken to stop drug abuse from happening before it even happens. Educational efforts to raise awareness of the harms of drug use, law enforcement efforts to crack down on drug crime, teaching youth how to handle peer pressure to use drugs, holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for making addictive drugs, disposing of unused meds, all of these are examples of prevention efforts.

Drug addiction in America has gotten to a point where we all have to work together to overcome it. And a big part of that lies in preventing new addicts from being made. If you have unused medications in your home, please make sure you dispose of them as soon as possible.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.