What Do I Do With Unwanted Medication?

A bunch of pills. What Do I Do With Unwanted Medication?
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Ready for a little decluttering? A great place to start is with your medicine stash. This might be in a medicine cabinet, kitchen cabinet, pantry, bedside drawer, purse, backpack, briefcase, luggage, or somewhere else. Organizing your medication collection is a smart idea because it not only clears space, but also keeps you healthy. One question that commonly arises when we organize medication is, “What do I do with unwanted medication?” This is a good question!

There are multiple reasons why you might not want some of your medication anymore, such as:

  • It is expired
  • You tried the medication once and had a bad reaction
  • The medication didn’t work for you
  • The person who took this medication no longer lives in your home
  • You no longer need this medication

Unused medication should not be left lying around for a couple of reasons, including:

  • It can be harmful if falls into the wrong hands (e.g., a child or pet)
  • It is risky if it is taken by someone for whom it was not prescribed
  • It can be stolen by (and/or potentially sold to) someone who may use it incorrectly

There are a couple of options for safely disposing of unwanted medication.

#1 Drug Take-Back Options

The best way to safely dispose of medication is to drop it off at a drug take-back location. These are places where medication is collected, no questions asked, and then safely processed.

One take-back option is the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. On this day, various organizations around the country step up to collect unwanted medication, similar to a local hazardous waste collection day. In 2022, the day was April 30th.  

If you don’t want to wait for one day a year, you can check this resource to find a DEA-authorized collector in your area who will collect all year long. Many communities have established drug take-back options, and they may or may not appear on the DEA list. A place to start in your own community is with the local police department. In my town in CT, there is a collection box at the police department where I can drop off medications at any time.

If your police department does not offer medication take-back, another option is a local pharmacy. Some pharmacies have receptacles for dropping off unwanted medications. Before you load up your car, it is wise to call ahead and see what direction they give you.

#2 Safety Dispose at Home

If you can’t find a take-back option near you, there are options for safely disposing of medication at home.

One option is DIY Safe disposal. To use this method, remove pills/tablets/liquids/etc. from their original containers and mix them with an unappealing substance, such as dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds. Recently I’ve also heard it suggested that unwanted medications be mixed with hand sanitizer. You don’t need to crush the pills, and don’t expect them to fully dissolve. Simply mix it together. Place this mixture into a sealed plastic bag and place the bag in your trash.

Another option is to purchase a product like this one or this one that is specifically designed for disposing of medication. In each case, you dump your medication into the container, which contains a substance that breaks the medication down. Then you add water, shake it all up, screw the lid tightly on, and throw it away. Again, the medication will not disappear or disintegrate, but it will no longer be potent.

In a few instances, you can flush medication. Be aware that this is never a first-choice option, because putting anything down the toilet ultimately impacts the water supply. However, the FDA believes that in some cases (e.g., with opioids), it is better to flush certain medications than to leave them lying around unsupervised in your home. You can see the FDA’s Flush List here. Remember, don’t flush any medication unless it is on the Flush List.

Once you have gotten rid of the medication itself, you will likely be left with some plastic containers. Most of the small, orange bottles that prescription medications come in are too small to be recycled, especially if you live in an area with single stream recycling.  (I know, that might seem surprising!). The general rule of thumb for plastic containers is that they need to be at least as big as a yogurt container. Therefore, for small bottles, you can cover any personal information with a black, permanent marker and toss the container into the trash. If you happen to have large containers (e.g., from a bulk purchase), and have access to plastic recycling in your community, you can go ahead and recycle the container.

For medication that is in a blister pack, (which is when each pill sits in a small plastic pocket of its own), proper disposal is questionable. The clear plastic part is recyclable, but the backing on the blister pack may not be.  When in doubt, rather than run the risk of contaminating a load, trash it.

In the process of sorting medication, you may come across sharps (needles). Sharps also need safe disposal. A simple solution is to drop them into a large, plastic laundry detergent container or other plastic container with a lid. Be sure to the label the container “do not recycle,” so the trash hauler won’t toss it into the recycling sorter. To be extra safe, tape the lid of the container shut before trashing it.

Inhalers are another time of medication you may wish to dispose of. There are two things to consider with inhalers:

1. Are they completely empty?

2. Are the metal and plastic parts separated?

If your inhaler is completely empty, and you have separated the plastic and metal parts, then the pieces can be recycled. However, if the inhaler is not empty, or you cannot separate the parts, then it is trash. The wisest step if you have inhalers is to contact your trash hauler or town disposal facility and ask how they would like you to proceed.

Lastly, you may have some medication that is in the form of a patch. These are a terrific innovation, but since they contain medication, they require thoughtful disposal. To dispose of a drug patch, fold the patch in half, sticky sides together. Nitroglycerin and testosterone patches can be placed in the trash. Fentanyl patches should be flushed immediately.

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When was the last time you decluttered your medication? Are these tips helpful?

Seana's signature

18 thoughts on “What Do I Do With Unwanted Medication?”

    1. You are lucky that you have a convenient place to return the medicine. At least this way, when you come across something you missed, you can drop it off on your next time out!

  1. Great tips, Seana. I did not know about the ‘flush list’. I always assumed it was not a good idea to flush medication because it put substances into the water supply. You often write such informative pieces that I want to keep them for reference. Have you ever considered turning the main points into printable info-graphics? I would print them and share them with clients.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…7 Tips for How to Be a Good House GuestMy Profile

    1. I’ll have to give that some thought, Diane! I used to do more infographics on my blog, but they don’t translate well into the mobile format, so I’ve moved off of them. Maybe I’ll put this together into one. Thanks for the idea!

  2. This is such valuable information. Like Diane, I didn’t know about the Flush List. I just assumed you shouldn’t flush any medication in the toilet. I’ve done the coffee ground mixture thing and also brought medications to a disposal site.

    Definitely keeping your post as a reference. Thank you for this great information and reminder to be responsible about how we let medications go.

    1. One of the things I love about our profession is how we keep learning, and can offer truly helpful advice to those who want to declutter and take care of the planet!

    1. CVS is doing a great job. Unfortunately, the one in my area doesn’t have a bin. But our police station has stepped out, so it is just helpful to be aware of the options so people can call around and find the best nearby option.

  3. Excellent post, and I was really surprised about flushing opioids and fentanyl. And I found, via your link, that apparently the Walgreen’s I pass every day now has a drug disposal bin! You learn something new every day!

    I just did the periodic drop-off of client meds at the sheriff’s department. Unfortunately, since COVID, you have to ring the outside doorbell and wait several minutes for someone to come out to let you into the building to drop the meds in the kiosk in the vestibule. I wish there were a way to do it on weekends or after hours for more convenience.

    FWIW, there are two NEA Drug Take Back Days; the one you referenced at the end of April, and one in the latter half of October. The exact date usually gets posted mid-summer.
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Toxic Productivity In the Workplace and What Comes NextMy Profile

    1. How wonderful to have that resource so widely available. When you get to end of life, those medications can make a big difference. It’s all about medications being in the right hands!

    1. Ah yes, with those little ones you need to be on top of stuff like this! Plus, it just feels good to get anything into the right hands for safe disposal.

    1. It’s not really a preferred disposal path, but it is good to be aware of what the experts consider the most important priorities.

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