How to Properly Dispose of Unused Medicines

Date:

November 15, 2022
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Learn how to properly dispose of your unused medicines to protect yourself, pets, and others from consuming a medication that may have become ineffective or even toxic.

Disposing of medications properly will help protect the environment, as well as pets, children, and anyone who might find medicines in your trash. Proper disposal of medicines:

  • Prevents poisoning of children and pets
  • Deters misuse by teenagers and adults
  • Avoids health problems from accidentally taking the wrong medicine, too much of the same medicine, or a medicine that is too old to work well
  • Keeps medicines from entering streams and rivers when poured down the drain or flushed down the toilet

Here are several options to consider when disposing of unused medicines.

Community-Based Drug Take-Back Events (BEST OPTION if available)

If you live in a city or community large enough to sponsor a drug take-back program, this is the best option. Some communities allow the public to bring unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your local law enforcement facility, pharmacy, or city or county government’s household trash and recycling service to see if a take-back program is available.

These collection sites safely and securely gather and dispose of your unused or expired medicines, including those that contain controlled substances. In your community, authorized collection sites may include:

  • retail shopping centers
  • hospitals or clinics
  • pharmacies
  • law enforcement facilities

Visit the Drug Enforcement Administration’s website, and enter your zip code, to find a take-back location near you: 

DEA Drug Take Back Locator

DEA Drug Take Back Locator

Household Trash

If a take-back program is not available, almost all medicines, except those on the FDA flush list (see below), can be thrown into your household trash. These include prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in pills, liquids, drops, patches, and creams.

Dispose of MedicineFollow these steps:

  1. Remove the drugs from their original containers and mix them with something undesirable, such as used coffee grounds, dirt, or cat litter.
    This makes the medicine less appealing to children and pets and unrecognizable to someone who might intentionally go through the trash looking for drugs.
  2. Put the mixture in something you can close (a re-sealable zipper storage bag, empty can, or other containers to prevent the drug from leaking or spilling out.
  3. Throw the container in the garbage.
  4. Scratch out all your personal information on the empty medicine packaging to protect your identity and privacy. Throw the packaging away.

If you have a question about your medicine, ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist.

Flushing (ONLY IF DIRECTED)

If you don’t have a drug take-back location near you, check the Food & Drug Administration’s FLUSH LIST to see if your medicine is on the list. Medicines on the flush list are:

  • Drugs sought-after for their misuse and/or abuse potential
    (For example, drugs that contain opioids like Fentanyl or Demerol.)
  • Drugs that can result in death from one dose if inappropriately taken.
    (For example, the Fentanyl patch can be deadly to children).

NOTE: Don’t flush expired or unwanted prescription and over-the-counter drugs down the toilet or drain unless the label or accompanying patient information specifically instructs you to do so, because doing so can be harmful to the environment and local water supply. 

In homes that use septic tanks, prescription and over-the-counter drugs flushed down the toilet can leach into the ground and seep into groundwater. In cities and towns where residences are connected to wastewater treatment plants, prescription and over-the-counter drugs poured down the sink or flushed down the toilet can pass through the treatment system and enter rivers and lakes. They may flow downstream to serve as sources for community drinking water supplies. Water treatment plants are generally not equipped to routinely remove medicines.

Disposing Fentanyl Patches

The fentanyl patch is an example of a product that contains a powerful opioid medicine that can be dangerous to people it’s not prescribed for. This adhesive patch delivers a strong pain medicine through the skin. Even after a patch is used, a lot of the medicine remains. That’s why the drug comes with instructions to flush used or leftover patches.

Disposing Inhaler Products

One environmental concern involves inhalers used by people who have asthma or other breathing problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Read handling instructions on the labeling of inhalers and aerosol products. These products could be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. To properly dispose of these products and follow local regulations and laws, contact your trash and recycling facility.

Disposing of Used Needles and Other Sharps

The FDA recommends a two-step process for properly disposing of used needles and other sharps.

Step 1: Place all needles and other sharps in a sharps disposal container immediately after they have been used. 
This will reduce the risk of needle sticks, cuts, and punctures from loose sharps. Sharps disposal containers should be kept out of reach of children and pets.

Note: Overfilling a sharps disposal container increases the risk of accidental needle-stick injury. When your sharps disposal container is about three-quarters (3/4) full, follow your community guidelines for getting rid of the container (Step 2, below). DO NOT reuse sharps disposal containers.

Be prepared when leaving home. Always carry a small, travel-size sharps disposal container in case other options are not available.

If traveling by plane, check the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website for up-to-date rules on what to do with your sharps. To make your trip through airport security easier, make sure your medicines are labeled with the type of medicine and the manufacturer’s name or a drug store label, and bring a letter from your doctor.

Step 2: Dispose of used sharps disposal containers according to your community guidelines.
Sharps disposal guidelines and programs vary depending on where you live. Check with your local trash removal services or health department (listed in the city or county government (blue) pages in your phone book) to see which of the following disposal methods are available in your area:

Drop Box or Supervised Collection Sites
You may be able to drop off your sharps disposal containers at appropriate chosen collection sites, such as doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies, health departments, medical waste facilities, and police or fire stations. Services may be free or have a nominal fee.

Household Hazardous Waste Collection Sites
You may be able to drop off your sharps disposal containers at local public household hazardous waste collection sites. These are sites that also commonly accept hazardous materials such as household cleaners, paints, and motor oil.

Mail-Back Programs
You may be able to mail certain FDA-cleared sharps disposal containers to a collection site for proper disposal, usually for a fee. Fees vary, depending on the size of the container. Follow the container manufacturer’s instructions because mail-back programs may have specific requirements on how to label sharps disposal containers.

Residential Special Waste Pick-Up Services
Your community may provide special waste pick-up services that send trained special waste handlers to collect sharps disposal containers from your home. These services are typically fee-based and many have special requirements for the types of containers they will collect. Some programs require customers to call and request pick-ups, while others offer regular pick-up schedules.

For more information specific to your state, call Safe Needle Disposal at 1-800-643-1643  or e-mail info@safeneedledisposal.org. Information they can provide for your state includes:

  • types of sharps containers that can be used,
  • disposal programs in your area,
  • how to label your sharps disposal containers,
  • how to secure the lid of your sharps disposal container, and
  • whether sharps disposal containers can be thrown away in the common trash.

A Final Note About Drug Misuse

Most people who misuse prescription drugs get them from family, friends, and acquaintances. You can make a difference by keeping track of the medicine you have, by rethinking where and how you keep your medications in your home, and by safely disposing of any unused medications.  

Don’t Share
Keep track of your legally prescribed controlled substances – that is, count your pills so you always know how much you should have and so you know when to take action if any go missing. With controlled substances, sharing is NOT caring. You could be putting your loved ones at risk, and unintentionally contribute to drug misuse, drug addiction, or a fatal drug overdose.

Limit Access
Everyone knows to keep medicine “out of the reach of children” but once your children become teens, there’s a good chance they can “reach” all medicines in your home and they know exactly where you keep what. Many people keep their medicine in easy-to-reach, easy-to-access cupboards, medicine cabinets, drawers, and so forth So put your medicine somewhere that only you can easily find and access. Lock it up if you can. This will keep your medicine from unintentionally ending up in the wrong hands and just may save someone’s life! 

SOURCES: US Food and Drug Administration; US Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); Get Smart About Drugs – a DEA resource for parents, educators, and caregivers. 


We hope this information is helpful to you in the important work you do as a family caregiver.
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