How can I properly dispose of medications that I no longer use?

How to Properly Dispose of Medications?


Question: How can I properly dispose of medications that I no longer use?

From a reader: I recently heard on the news that there are drugs in our drinking water because people flush their pills down the toilet. How can I properly dispose of medications that I no longer use?


Many people toss expired or unused medications in the trash or flush them down the toilet or drain. Some components of these drugs end up in our lakes, streams, and water supplies.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “The improper disposal of unused medications by flushing them or pouring them down the drain may be harmful to fish, wildlife and their habitats.”

Throwing medications away in the garbage also may be dangerous, as they can end up in the mouths of children or household pets.

I admit that I have been guilty of not appropriately disposing of unused medications. Following the reports about water contamination, I did research on the issue and now correctly dispose of both prescription and over-the-counter medications.

There are several options for proper disposal of your medications.

  • Call your local pharmacy to find out if there are any drug buyback programs or approved collection programs in your area. Your pharmacy may be able to send discarded medications to a registered disposal company.
  • Pour liquid medication or pills into a sealable plastic bag or an empty can. Add a substance like kitty litter, sawdust or used coffee grounds to make the medication less appealing to kids and pets. Seal the container and put it in the trash.
  • Before recycling or throwing away your empty medication containers, remove or scratch out the prescription label or any personal information.

Addendum 2015:

According to the EPA, certain prescription medications are considered hazardous wastes and must be disposed of appropriately.  These drugs are specified by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Rules and Regulations.


Here are examples of drugs of which the EPA mandates proper disposal:

  • warfarin
  • epinephrine
  • phentermine
  • physostigmine
  • chlorambucil
  • mitomycin C
  • resperine
  • cyclophosphamide

Ideally, it's best that all prescription medication be treated as hazardous waste.

Hazardous is first incinerated and then the ash is deposited into a hazardous waste landfill.  Prescription medications collected during take back programs are incinerated.  Another option is to take your medications to a DEA-authorized collection site (click here for a location finder).

If there are no take back programs or authorized collection site in your area, the FDA recommends the following steps when disposing of medication:

  1. Combine medicines together but do not crush them.
  2. Mix the medicines with an inedible substance like dirt or kitty litter.  (You don't want somebody or something to eat the medications.)
  3. Place this mixture of medication and dirt or whatever in a sealed container.
  4. Throw the container in your household trash.

The WHO has looked into concerns that there are pharmaceutical drugs in the water that we drink.  They found that many of these substances are removed through conventional water treatment processes.  Furthermore, the WHO states:

Currently, analysis of the available data indicates that there is a substantial margin of safety between the very low concentrations of pharmaceuticals that would be consumed in drinking-water and the minimum therapeutic doses, which suggests a very low risk to human health.

Content Edited by Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, in October 2015

Selected Sources

Das R, Marty M, Underwood MC. Industrial Emissions, Accidental Releases, & Hazardous Waste. In: LaDou J, Harrison RJ. eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 5e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013.  Accessed October 25, 2015.


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