Safe Medication Disposal

Why is medication disposal important?5,6

There is a common misperception that prescription drugs are safer than illegal drugs – this is not true. Many prescriptions medications can be abused and/or lead to injury or death if used incorrectly.

  • Everyday up to 2,000 teenagers nationwide use a prescription drug to get high for the first time. They are finding these drugs in cupboards, drawers and medicine cabinets in their own homes.
  • Drug overdose is a leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people every year than car accidents

Disposing of prescription medications that are expired, unneeded or unwanted from the home is a key step to reducing and/or preventing abuse. Following proper disposal guidelines is also essential to ensure that unwanted medications do not negatively impact the environment.

Where can patients dispose of unwanted medications?1-4

Medications can be disposed of in a number of ways, but not all methods are equally safe or effective. While medications, in many cases, can be disposed of at home, take-back programs are highly recommended to increase safety and to ensure each medication is disposed of in an environmentally friendly way. Table 1 summarizes the take-back programs available everyday as well as special events that occur several times a year.

Table 1: Medication Take-Back Programs or Events

*Current laws only allow the patient or law enforcement to legally have custody of the drug so these medications can only be dropped off at specific locations, except at a take-back event when law enforcement is present. A complete list of controlled substances can be found on the DEA website7


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Home disposal is not the preferred method of medications disposal, but may become necessary if a take-back program or event is unavailable. If it is decided to dispose of medications at home there are a few key points to remember:1

  • It is not regularly recommended to flush medications down the toilet, but there are some medications where this is recommended (ie. Fentanyl patches). Medications that are recommended to be flushed down the toilet will typically come with specific disposal instructions in the packaging. The FDA “flush list” lists medications that are recommended to be flushed down the sink or toilet10.
  • Inhalers can be dangerous if punctured or thrown into an incinerator – it is best to contact your local trash and recycling company before placing these medications in the trash.
  • Proper disposal of medications in the trash requires a multi-step process:
  1. Remove the medications from original containers and mix with coffee grounds, dirt or cat litter.
  2. Liquid medications should be mixed with an absorbent material such as flour or cat litter.
  3. Put the mixture in something that can be closed such as a sandwich baggie, empty coffee can, or other container to prevent the medication from leaking into the trash.
  4. Throw the container away into the regular trash.
  5. Be sure to remove/scratch out personal information on the empty medication packaging.

At Home Drug Disposal with DisposeRx11

DisposeRx is a new drug disposal product available to pharmacists and providers that can be given to patients to help prevent prescription drug misuse and environmental damage at home. DisposeRx is easy and convenient to use. The prescription bottle, with the unused medication inside, is filled ⅔ with warm tap water and then the DisposeRx powder packet is added. The bottle is then shaken for 30 seconds and discarded in the regular trash. While the bottle is being shaken, the medication is dissolved and a gel is formed, rendering the medication physically and chemically useless.

DisposeRx is available at many local pharmacies including: Rite Aid, Wal-Mart, and Spartan stores.

In-Pharmacy Drug Take Back Kiosks

Some pharmacies have take back kiosks that can be accessed during pharmacy hours. Patients can safely dispose of their unused or expired controlled substances, opioids, OTC medications, and non-controlled medications. Needles, inhalers, aerosol cans, hydrogen peroxide, thermometers, and illicit drugs are not accepted at the take back kiosks. Currently, Meijer and Walgreens offer drug take back kiosks.



Reviewed by: Tiffany Jenkins, PharmD. BCACP

About the author

PharmD Candidate, Ferris State University Class of 2019

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