Trashing Unused Drugs May Be the Greenest Option

When somebody is treated with a course of prescription drugs, they often times have a little left over — for example, when I got my wisdom teeth removed, I had an excess of mild pain killers and I still have leftover antibiotics from my recent trip to Burma. The question is what to do with these leftovers? Do you leave them in your medicine cabinet, where kids could swallow them by accident or teenagers could use them to get high? Do you flush them down the toilet, where they could cause water contamination? Or do you simply throw them away?

The Drug Enforcement Administration has been encouraging Americans to eschew all of these options by organizing drug take-back programs at community pharmacies and police departments. The problem with take backs is that they are infrequent, and often quite expensive to expand. Now, though, researchers at the University of Michigan say that, from an environmental perspective, trashing them may not be so bad.

The important part of this equation is the fact that drugs collected by take-back programs are incinerated, so they are not without environmental effects. In the study, the researchers examined three methods of drug disposal: flushing, trashing and incineration. According to NPR, they took into account “how much of the drugs would enter the environment, but also looked at emissions impacts from transportation, water treatment, and burning of waste materials.” They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that flushing is worst for the environment: it creates more air pollution than trashing, and allows large amounts of drugs to enter the environment.

Since incineration facilities are often far away, and people have to travel to a drop-off point to give up their drugs, the take-back programs are actually less environmentally friendly than disposing of unused drugs with household trash, in part because communities already have systems for picking up the trash. So even though trashing and incineration allow roughly equal amounts of the drugs to enter the environment, incineration produces much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions than trashing.

This is good news for people fighting the abuse of prescription narcotics by teenagers. Among the nearly 1-in-10 high school seniors who said they used prescription drugs without a doctor’s order in 2011, users were mostly likely to report getting the drugs for free from friends or relatives. In other words, any efforts to get unused prescription drugs out of people’s houses will likely reduce prescription drug abuse among teenagers. It’s an added bonus that the most eco-friendly way of disposing of drugs also happens to be the easiest.

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Photo Credit: Tom Varco


Huber F.
Huber F5 years ago

This is a crazy world. OMG.

Julie Evans
Julie Evans5 years ago

We take ours every year to be taken care of properly at a local facility.

Deborah D.
Deborah D5 years ago

IF you are planning to dispose of them via the trash...drop the pills into used kitty litter that is going to be trashed anyway.

I am still going to look for a turn-in site...they are not ubiquitous in my area.

Sue Griffiths
SUE Griffiths5 years ago

Why can't you hand them over to your local pharmacist? That's what we do in the UK. Never been a problem. I worry that birds and animals will eat them if they are put into the trash. They will end up on landfill sites. Anyone who has ever seen a trash lorry dump the trash on landfills, will have seen hundreds of birds usually gulls, hovering over the lorry.

Edward N.
Edward N.5 years ago

Incineration is still the best option. Incineration locations such as Wasatch Energy in Utah have tough polution guidelines to follow for their burning and it results in energy production which is a win win. I suggest you look more into this and reevaluate.

Gina P.
Regina P5 years ago

Take backs shouldn't be that hard. We are a small city and have them at our police stations and the courthouse. It can be done. Trashing them leaves them available for abusers.

Lane Yoshiyama
Lane Yoshiyama5 years ago

Interesting. Thanks for posting.

Valarie Snell
Valarie Snell5 years ago


Diane Piecara
Diane Piecara5 years ago

Thanks, now when I put them in the trash I won't feel as bad.

diana rojek
diana r5 years ago

Sounds pretty logical, however if it were pain pills or something else "desirable" I would not toss them in their labeled containers, I would dump them into a peanut butter or mayo jar with some coffee grounds to make them completely unuseable, to thwart the dumpster divers. As for my husbands cancer meds I was able to give those to his doctor's office for indigent care.