As a pharmacist, I always understood the importance of proper drug disposal, but it wasn’t until I watched my 2-year-old craft a staircase out of a shoebox, a club-sized package of paper towels and a box of cereal in his determination to retrieve an out-of-reach cookie that I witnessed its importance. What if he climbed high enough to get into the medicine cabinet? So many others have realized this, too. One of the most frequent questions I was asked in my career as a retail pharmacist was “How do you get rid of old medications?” Whether it was expired bottles of over-the-counter medications, unused antibiotics or unwanted narcotics from a recent surgery, there was a constant murmur about what to do with these medications. Clearly you don’t want them just sitting around, but what are you supposed to do with them?
The easiest way to dispose of medications is in the trash. Simply mix the medicine with an undesirable substance like cat litter, coffee grounds or dirt. Place it into a container that you can seal, like an empty jar of peanut butter or a plastic bag with a zip top, and throw away in your regular household trash. I still hear of folks flushing their medications down the toilet, but this practice is only recommended for a select few flushable medications.
If throwing medicines in the trash worries you, another very popular option is through the National Drug Take Back Days. This is a day where you can drop off any medication with no questions asked to your local participating law enforcement or fire station. There are two National Drug Take Back Days each year (typically in April and October). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration cites that, since 2010, well over 5 million pounds of unused, unwanted medications have been disposed of. The next National Drug Take Back Day is April 28. To find a location nearest to you, check the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) website.
A third option is to find a DEA-authorized collector in your area. These are public sites that have registered with the DEA to maintain a collection receptacle to take back and dispose of medications. You’ll most commonly find one of these receptacles in a community pharmacy or a hospital with an on-site pharmacy.
Keep in mind, there may be some restrictions on these take back programs, and for those who are still looking for options, there are mail-in options, or your local waste management agency can direct you to other local programs.
Sources: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Administration