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Disposing of Prescription and OTC Medications

By December 8, 2009 - 1:07pm
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As the end-of-the-year approaches, I went through our medicine cabinets and found a lot of medication (both prescription and OTC) that expire in 2009 or January 2010.

I think I read that you should not dispose of drugs in the trash, because it can hurt the environment (or, someone can get a hold of prescription drugs out of your trash).

I think I read also that you should not dispose of drugs by flushing the pills or liquid down the toilet, as that can hurt the environment, too.

What is the proper way to dispose of expired medications?


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Great question! Alison and Pat have given you important information worth noting.

Thanks for asking.

December 9, 2009 - 6:38am
Expert HERWriter Guide Blogger

Hi Free2BMe - I just read an article about this in Slate, which was focused on the "greenest" ways to dispose of medications. The article included information on the FDA guidelines Alison mentioned, and I found the recommendations to flush certain medications down the toilet to be surprising.

The article went on to say:"These federal guidelines aren't binding, and your state or local authority may have somewhat different advice. For example, several states caution patients never to flush any medications, dangerous or otherwise. (Connecticut suggests taking extra steps to keep your meds out of unwanted paws or hands, such as dissolving pills and capsules in water, wrapping blister packs in duct tape, and adding flour, salt, or mustard powder to liquid medications to make "a pungent, unsightly mixture.")

The article also discussed what you can do to recycle old prescription containers. "Most over-the-counter bottles are made of high-density polyethylene (that's No. 2 plastic), though some may be made of polyethylene terephalate (No. 1). Both types are widely recyclable, but many local curbside programs won't take them, because they're small and can jam up equipment. Meanwhile, amber prescription bottles are usually polypropylene (No. 5), which is rarely accepted by recyclers. The design company Preserve collects No. 5 plastics at many Whole Foods, though, and you can also mail your polypropylene empties directly to the company. Some shelters, clinics, and veterinarians' offices also collect prescription vials and reuse them, so if you've got a whole bunch of them on your hands, it might be worth looking for such a facility in your area. The Lantern (author) likes to use hers as coin containers or carrying cases for earrings and safety pins while she travels."

If you'd like to real the full article, it can be found here:


Thanks for bringing up this topic, it's an important one!

December 8, 2009 - 6:06pm

The FDA has a Q&A site for how to properly dispose of medications: FDA: How to Dispose of Unused Medications.

You are right that flushing medications down the toilet causes harm to the environment, and the best way to dispose of medications (so that your other concern--chance of drugs getting into the wrong hands---is avoided) is to:
1. Look on label for any information/instructions on how to dispose
2. If no instructions are given, throw the drugs in the household trash, but first:
* Take them out of their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter. The medication will be less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through your trash.
* Put them in a sealable bag, empty can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.

There are a list of drugs that are RECOMMENDED by the FDA to flush down the toilet, as they are more worried about accidental exposure of these medicines (including Percocet, Oxycontin, Morphine, Demerol, etc). Read complete list: Safe Disposal by Flushing Certain Medications.

A few other tips before disposing of your medication:
- Scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable.
- Make sure your city, state, pharmacy and/or doctor's office does not have a "drug take-back" program
- Ask your pharmacist if you are still unsure about how to dispose of the medication

December 8, 2009 - 2:56pm
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