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How to Safely Dispose of Medications

image for pill splitting article Do you have expired or unused prescription medications in your medicine cabinet? You might even have bottles stacked behind other bottles, taking up space and creating danger. Your first instinct may be to toss the old drugs in the trash or flush them down the toilet, but there is a safer way to get rid of your unwanted medications.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) created the following guidelines for consumers. These guidelines were designed to keep people, animals, and the environment safe.

Step One: Read the Drug Label

First, read the drug label or patient information that is packaged with the medication. Here, you may find specific information regarding disposal. It is important that you do not flush the medication down the toilet unless the instructions tell you to do so. This is because drug residues can end up in the water systems—streams, rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs.

In fact, there are only a few medications, like the narcotics oxycodone and fentanyl that should be flushed. This is because these drugs are highly addictive. It is safer to keep these medications out of the trash and away from people who may abuse them.

Step Two: Dispose or Drop Off

What if the medication label does not have specific instructions for disposal? You have a couple of options:

  • Disposing of the medication in your trash
  • Dropping off your medication at a drug take-back program

Trash Disposal

You can throw away expired or unused medication in the trash. First you will have to prepare the medication so that it will be in a safer form. These instructions apply to both pills and liquids.

  • Remove the medication from its original bottle. Mix the drugs with something that would make them unappealing to people or pets who may go through the trash. You can use kitty litter or used coffee grounds.
  • Next, place the medication in a plastic bag with a seal or in a container with a lid. The goal is to make sure that the medication does not spill out of this packaging. You can also use tape to further secure the bag or container.
  • Do not forget about the original bottle that the medication came in. Your privacy is important. Remove the label or use a black marker to hide your name and any other information. Before placing the bottle in the trash, check to see if it has a recycling code on the bottom. If it does and your city or town’s recycling program accepts this type of plastic, place the bottle in your recycling bin.

Drug Take-Back Program

Some communities offer take-back programs where you can drop off your medications at a designated location. Visit your state’s government website to learn more, or call your city or town’s waste removal and recycling departments.

Would you also like to get rid of old over-the-counter (OTC) medications from your cabinet? You can apply the same trash disposal steps to OTC drugs. Remember, too, that you can always ask your pharmacist for advice about medication disposal and whether the pharmacy has a take-back program.

Safety with medication does not just end when you are feeling healthier. You can ensure the safety of people, pets, and the environment by carefully disposing of your drugs.

  • Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

  • United States Food and Drug Administration

  • Canadian Pharmacists Association

  • Health Canada

  • FDA has updated flush list for disposing of medications safely. American Pharmacists Association website. Available at: Published May 17, 2013. Accessed August 6, 2015.

  • United States Food and Drug Administration. How to dispose of unused medicines. United States Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: Updated June 4, 2015. Accessed August 6, 2015.