How to Dispose of Prescription Drugs

In recent years,  scientists have detected trace amounts of more than 150 different human and veterinary medicines in environments as far afield as the Arctic. Eighty percent of the U.S.’s streams and nearly a quarter of the nation’s groundwater sampled by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has been found to be contaminated with a variety of medications.

In the meantime, according to an AP story, analysis of tap water supplies in major metropolitan areas conducted by the Associated Press has revealed that the water supply in 24 major U.S. cities — serving over 40 million people — are contaminated with trace amounts of pharmaceuticals including antibiotics, anti-seizure medications, anti-inflammatory drugs, psychotropic drugs, and pain medication.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Don’t flush old medications! Although much of the pollution comes from the urine of our over-prescribed population, flushing old medication clearly doesn’t help the situation. Individuals aside, one study estimated the nation’s nursing homes discard anywhere from $73 million to $378 million worth of drugs a year. Some are incinerated, but many are flushed.

Unused portions of these medicines must be disposed of properly to avoid harm to wildlife, pets, and people.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Pharmacists Association, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America have created the smaRXt disposal campaign to educate consumers about how to dispose of medicines in a safe and environmentally protective manner. Here are our tips based on their recommendations:

Do not flush unused medications and do not pour them down a sink or drain.
There are currently 27 drugs deemed dangerous enough by the FDA (such as powerful narcotic pain relievers and other controlled substances) to carry instructions for flushing (this will be clearly labeled) to reduce the risk to pets and family, or illegal abuse.
According to the FDA, disposal of these select, few medicines by flushing contributes only a small fraction of the total amount medicine found in the water–and that any potential risk to people and the environment from flushing this small, select list of medicines is outweighed by the real possibility of life-threatening risks from accidental ingestion of these medicines.  You can see the list of 27 flushable drugs here.

Find a Take-Back program
Drug take-back programs for disposal can be another good way to remove unwanted or expired medicines from the home and reduce the chance that someone may accidentally take the medicine. Contact your city or county government’s household trash and recycling service to see if there is a take-back program in your community and if there are any rules about which medicines can be taken back. You can also talk to your pharmacist to see if he or she knows of other medicine disposal programs in your area. See for more.
For drugs not labeled for flushing, follow these steps:

• Take medication out of its original container and pour it into a sealable plastic bag. If medication is a solid (pill, liquid capsule, etc.), add water to dissolve it.

• Add kitty litter, sawdust, coffee grounds (or any material that mixes with the medication and makes it less appealing for pets and children to eat) to the plastic bag.

• Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash.

• Remove and destroy all identifying personal information (prescription label) from all medication containers before recycling them or throwing them away.

For more on disposing of other bathroom products, see Medicine Cabinet Clean Out
For more on prescription drug dangers: The Second Leading Cause of Death in the U.S. and 10 Common Medication Mistakes That Can Kill. Also see FDA: Popular Diabetes Drug Linked to Heart Attacks

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Beverly C.
Beverly C.1 years ago

I have a large vitamin bottle in which I put all my unused and/or expired meds in and then when it's full, I take it to my pharmacy. THEY have hazardous material containers in which they place THEIR medical/pharmaceutical "waste" That way I feel I have safely gotten rid of all medications I cannot or did not use! That goes for over the counter medications too, by the way.

Of course, while I'm filling the bottle, I store it in a safe place, away from animals, children or anyone who COULD be looking to "score drugs" feel this is one of the absolute BEST ways to get rid of those types of items and not have to worry about them!

Tsandi Crew
Tsandi Crew1 years ago

You say put coffee grounds, cat litter. sawdust in the bag... you neglect to say they should be USED coffee grounds, USED cat litter, WET Sawdust. They have to make the meds unusable. People go through the garbage to get those meds.. they have be deterred. Plane dry coffee grounds, dry cat litter and dry sawdust do nothing.

Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin1 years ago

great to know!

Patricia H.
Patricia H.3 years ago

thanks for sharing

Michele Wilkinson

Thank you

Trudy Killa
Trudy Killa3 years ago

Thanks for the insight on disposing of drugs. Many people do not finish all their meds. I just pulled about 8 bottles out of my medicine cabinet yesterday & wondered what to do with them. Now I have some options. Thanks again.

David Lam
David Lam3 years ago

Great article!

Judy Emerson
Judith Emerson3 years ago

Thank you so much for this very important info!

Bonnie B.
Bonnie B.4 years ago

Thank you for posting this extremely important information, Melissa. I have read that frogs are having trouble mating because estrogen in birth control pills gets in water and they all end up female! Makes you wonder if this is part of the reason so many boys are "feminized" and men have ED, but many poisons and drugs could do this.

Dandelion G.
Dandelion G.4 years ago

This is one of those areas that many do not think about but is very important. Thanks for getting the information out to more people.