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Proper Disposal of Old Medications

Updated on September 24, 2012

Disposal of Medication

SImply throwing away old pills or flushing them down the toilet is not the best way to dispose of old meications. There are safer methods.
SImply throwing away old pills or flushing them down the toilet is not the best way to dispose of old meications. There are safer methods. | Source

By Joan Whetzel

It's not unusual for people to find they have old, or outdated medications at home, either prescriptions or over the counter medications. Either we stopped taking them or we didn't need them anymore. Perhaps the doctor ordered a new medication to replace the old one, or they belonged to a friend or relative who died at some point, and so they were overlooked. Whatever the reason, these old drugs need to be disposed of safely. But how? Properly and safely discarding of old medications is vital.

Flushing them isn't a good idea. If everyone dumped their hormones, or antibiotics, or diabetic meds, or psychiatric drugs into the toilet, could you imagine what that would do to our water supply, the environment, or the plants and animals that depend on the water supplies and the ground nearby. Imagine all the food we eat that may have been contaminated by all those drugs.

Reduce Orders, Purchase Less

One way to keep medicine cabinets clear of old medication is to buy less of the drugs in the first place. Unless you've got arthritis or chronic pain, there's really no reason to buy that large bottle of AdvilĀ®. Otherwise, it ends up being stored well past the expiration date. It is also a good idea to request that the physician prescribe the minimum or ask the pharmacist to fill the smallest amount of the prescription needed. Why pay for a six month supply when a one month supply will do. For one thing, if the prescription needs to be changed or the patient dies, there is less medication left over to be discarded.

Pharmacy Take-Back Programs

Many pharmacies have a take-back program. Ask the pharmacy that filled the prescription or the doctor that prescribed it if they have such a program. If not, ask if they can point you to a city or county government program that has a take-back program. Take-back programs allow people to turn in any unused prescription and over-the-counter medications to a party that will dispose of the drugs responsibly. If no such program is immediately accessible, lock up the medicines to prevent misuse or abuse until such a program becomes available.

Disposing Medications in the Trash

Medications can be thrown away, provided special precautions are taken. First pills must be crushed and the contents of capsules must be emptied. Next, pour these pill and capsule granules, along with any liquid medications, into a coffee can, a margarine container or a fabric softener container. (Any kind of a container likes this with a tight fitting lid that you would have disposed of anyway.) Next mix in some other ingredient(s) that will make the drug concoction unappetizing -- something like dirt, kitty liter, cayenne pepper or habanera peppers, concrete mix -- you get the idea. Tightly seal the bottle, tub or can. Then tape it closed with lots of duct tape

Any prescriptions bottles must also be properly disposed of. First, the personal information on prescription pharmaceuticals needs to be camouflaged. "Black out" the patient's name, doctor's name and all the prescription information with a permanent marker. Next, bundle all the medication bottles into some zipper baggies and wrap them in duct tape. Finally, hide both the prescription bottles and their sealed contents in the garbage can. Don't just set them on top of the garbage, mix them in with the rest of the trash so that they don't stand out or attract anyone who might be tempted to poke through your trash.


There is a relatively new company that has set up another system for safely disposing of old and unused medication - Element MDs. The product comes with a bottle and a packet of powder that turns to gel when activated with water. The basic concept is to fill the bottle with the old medications, dump in the gelatin packet, add water then put on the tamper resistant cap and shake. The gelatin powder gels within 24 hours. Then the whole package can be thrown out with the trash. One medication disposal unit costs $9.99. There's a bulk package of the the disposal system available for medical faciliites. Check it out and decide for yourself if this is something you'd consider. The website is located at:


Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Disposal of Household Medication. Downloaded 1/2012.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection. How to Dispose of Unwanted Medications. Downloaded 1/2102.

Wedro, Benjamine C., MD, FAAEm, FACEP. Medicine Net. Medication Disposal --- What to Do With Old or Unusable Medication. Downloaded 1/2012

Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Disposal of Unwanted or Unused Pharmaceuticals. Downloaded 1/2101.

Rykowski, Maureen. The Phoenix. Gateway Pharmacy Disposes Of Old Medications. Downloaded 1/2102.

Walgreens Pharmacist. FAQ: Drugs, Proper Disposal. Downloaded 1/2012


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    • joanwz profile imageAUTHOR

      Joan Whetzel 

      5 years ago from Katy, Texas

      I wonder sometimes if we shouldn't continue that process. It's scary how much of our drugs get into ecosystem.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      5 years ago from California

      My son is taking an ecology class in college and he was amazed with the studies they have done on the San Francisco Bay. The amount of birth control hormones peed into the sewage system eventually ending up in the bay is changing fertility rates in fish.

      Long ago they used to burn old drugs.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      I use the trash disposal methods you described, using lots of duct tape. I LOVE DUCT TAPE! Unfortunately, I know there are many people flushing meds down the toilet or just tossing them, still in the original bottles, in the trash.

      Very good article! Voted UP, USEFUL and INTERESTING.


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