How to Dispose Unused or Expired Drugs | Tammy Nguyen, PharmD | RxEconsult

All Health Articles

How to Dispose Unused or Expired Drugs Category: Pharmacotherapy by - October 18, 2013 | Views: 28578 | Likes: 2 | Comment: 3  

Drug Disposal

How to Properly Dispose of Unused or Expired Drugs

The number of prescription filled seems to increase each year with over 4 billion prescriptions dispensed in 2011. As a nation, 7 out of 10 Americans take at least one medication. However, with increasing prescriptions also comes increase in unused or expired drugs. What happens to unused medications?

One of the common questions community pharmacists receive today is ways to destroy unused medications. Patients often take left over medications to the pharmacy where the medication was originally dispensed. However, since many state and federal laws prevent pharmacies from taking back these prescriptions, it is important that pharmacists and consumers understand the proper way to dispose their unwanted medications. Below is a summary of both federal guidelines and general recommendations on proper disposal of unused or expired medications.  

Community Drug Take Back Programs

  • There are often community drug take back programs that allow the general public to bring their unused drugs to a certain location for proper disposal.
  • Try calling your county’s trash and recycling service to see if there are any available take back programs.
  • Some police stations in certain states are participating in a Drop Box Drug pilot program with the Department of Consumer Protection, Drug Control Division. Check you local police department to see if they are participating in this program.

National Prescription Drug Take Back Days

  • The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) works with the state and local law enforcement agencies and sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Days throughout the United States on certain dates.
  • Try going on their website to find more information on dates and locations of this program.

Nationwide Mail Back Services

Many chain pharmacies are offering mail-back services for unused, outdated or unwanted prescription and over-the-counter drugs. They all offer the some variation of a special postage paid envelope or packaging that allows consumers to mail their unwanted drugs through the US Postal service to a secure licensed facility for proper destruction. Controlled medications are excluded from these programs and it usually costs $3.99. Here is a list of some retail chain pharmacies that are currently offering the program:

  • Rite Aid: For more information, visit their website here.
  • CVS pharmacy: For more information, visit their website here.
  • Walgreens, for more information visit their website here.

Disposal in Household Trash

Always check to see if there is a take back program or take back day available in your area. If there is none, then you may use the following steps recommended from the federal guidelines to properly dispose of your unwanted medications in the household trash.

  • Check any local laws to make sure those medicines can legally be disposed of in your household.
  • Mix all medications (do NOT crush capsules or tablets) with an inedible substance such as dirt, kitty liter, saw dust, or used coffee grounds. You may add some water to dissolve and mix the medications to make it even less appealing.
  • Place the mixture into a container (used bottle, jar, can, or sealed plastic bag) and throw the container into your household trash in order to prevent leakage into the garbage bag.
  • Remove the prescription label or scratch off all identifiable information before throwing away prescription bottles. 

Flushing of Certain Medicines

  • Flushing is generally not recommended. However, there are a few medications that may be harmful and potentially fatal if ingested by others. A small number of drugs have specific disposal instructions allowing them to be flushed down the sink or toilet as soon as they are no longer required. This option is for drugs that cannot be properly disposed through a medication take back program.
  • You can check to see if a drug may be disposed by flushing through the list of medicines recommended for disposal by flushing.
  • If your drug is not on this list, and you want to find more instructions on how to dispose your unused medications, you may search for the drug at DailyMed or ask your pharmacist.

Reducing a surplus supply of prescription and over-the-counter products

  • If you are taking a medication for the first time, you may request your doctor to write a smaller amount or request your pharmacist to dispense a smaller amount. This will prevent waste if the medication did not work for you or if you experienced intolerable side effects and also save you time and money.
  • Check expiration dates on both prescription and OTC products to make sure that you will use all of the medication before it expires.  
  • Avoid enrolling in pharmacy programs that automatically refill your prescriptions on medications that you only use as necessary and those that take you longer finish. Although this is convenient and necessary for maintenance medications such as those for diabetes or hypertension, this may lead to accumulation of medications that are not used occasionally.

Proper disposal of medications is very important because it not only protects you but also our environment. Improper removal of drugs can lead to misuse or poisoning of children, pets, or other adults. Therefore, if you are ever in doubt or not sure what to do, always ask your pharmacist!


U. S. Food and Drug Administration/Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (2013).Disposal of Unused Medications: What you should know.

U. S. Food and Drug Administration/Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (2013).Medication disposal: Questions and Answers.

U. S. Food and Drug Administration/Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (2013).How to Dispose of Unused Medicines.

U.S.Environmental Protection Agency. Recommendation on the Disposal of Household Pharmaceuticals Collected By Take-Back Events, Mail-Back, and Other Collection Programs.

Proper disposal of expired or unwanted drugs. Pharmacist's Letter/Prescriber's Letter 2008;24(4):240413.


Comment on this article or post an article by joining the RxEconsult community.

Please Share on Your Social Networks



For More Healthcare Insights Join Us On Twitter
and Facebook. Join The Community To Publish Articles.

Copyright 2024 RxEconsult. All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Sitemap