What to Do with Expired Prescription Drugs?

Many of us have medicine cabinets that are crowded with unused or expired prescription medications. How should we get rid of the old meds we no longer want?

Do you sometimes flush old prescription drugs down the drain? Oops. I suspect that most of us haven’t thought hard about what's the best way to dispose of old medicines. And yet, as prescription drug use continues to expand more and more in the U.S., this question is becoming truly critical. 

First, what should we not do?

Please don't flush prescription drugs down the toilet/drain unless the written instructions on the label tell you to. But if we can't flush away pills that are no longer useful to us, what should we do with them? 

Gather up all the unwanted and expired

You need to periodically go through all the places in your home where you store pills and retrieve any that you no longer need or want. Once you've got all the pill containers collected, click over to the Food and Drug Administration list of the 25 most dangerous prescription medications (drugs such as Demerol, morphine, Percocet, and Methadone) and make sure that none of your pills are on that list. If any are, you should flush them immediately because if any of these drugs were to be accidentally found and ingested, they could be fatal. Any environmental harm they can cause when flushed is insignificant compared to the terrible harm they could do to anyone who found and swallowed them. 

Find a take-back program in your community

But since most of your old prescription drugs are not in fact going to be on the FDA's short list of flushables, you can next contact your local government’s household trash and recycling department to see if any “drug take-back” programs are offered by your community. Police departments sometime oversee such take-back programs, too.

Or, how about a nationwide take-back program?

The 2nd National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day happens to be scheduled for Saturday, April 30, 2011. Find out if there will be a collection site near you on that day.

A safe and dependable way to dispose of your old meds yourself

If you can't find a drug take-back program, follow these instructions for all the pills you want to get rid of:

  1. Remove all medications from their original containers.
  2. Mix the medications with used coffee grounds or cat litter--or with any undesirable substance that will make them less appealing to children and pets. You can even use a hammer or the sole of your shoe to crush up bigger pills a bit, so they'll be harder to identify as drugs.
  3. Pour this unappetizing mixture into a disposable container, either one that can be sealed with a lid or else a sturdy, resealable plastic bag that won't allow water in or medicine out.
  4. When the container is full, seal it tight and put it in your trash.
  5. Dispose of over-the-counter drugs in this same way.
  6. If you're ever in doubt about how to dispose of a medicine, talk to your pharmacist.

Last, deal with the pill bottles

  1. Remove all the personal identifiers from the containers.
  2. Toss those empties into the trash, too.

Additional information:

Office of National Drug Control Policy

SMARxT Disposal Campaign


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