Veterinary Compliance Assistance

Disposal of Unused Medications—Advice for Households


The VetCA website provides environmental compliance assistance information to hospitals and other healthcare facilities, which must follow strict federal and state guidelines for waste management.These rules don't usually apply to private citizens.However, most individuals are conscious of our environment and look for ways to be good environmental stewards, whether it's recycling resources or properly disposing of potentially hazardous materials.Therefore, we are posting this fact sheet to help answer the question, "What is the proper way to dispose of unused medicines?"

Many of us have been trained to get rid of old or unwanted drugs by flushing them down the toilet. This practice evolved from our desire to keep potentially dangerous drugs out of the hands of others, especially children. However, recent research is showing that this may be the least environmentally friendly method of disposing of old or unwanted drugs, because it transfers these chemicals to our water resources.When discarded drugs are washed into streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers, they can affect fish and wildlife – and they can contaminate our drinking water supplies.

Best Practices

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) have joined forces to help protect our nation's fish and aquatic resources from improper disposal of medication by establishing the "SMARxT DISPOSAL" program.This program recommends the following procedures for unused drug disposal:

  • DO NOT FLUSH unused medications or POUR them down a sink or drain.*
  • Be proactive and dispose of unused medication in household trash. When discarding unused medications, ensure you protect children and pets from potentially negative effects:
    • Pour medication into a sealable plastic bag. If medication is a solid (pill, liquid capsule, etc.), crush it or add water to dissolve it.
    • Add kitty litter, sawdust, coffee grounds (or any material that mixes with the medication and makes it less appealing for pets and children to eat) to the plastic bag.
    • Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash.
    • Remove and destroy ALL identifying personal information (prescription label) from all medication containers before recycling them or throwing them away.
  • Check for Approved State and Local Collection Programs. Another option is to check for approved state and local collection alternatives such as community based household hazardous waste collection programs. In certain states, you may be able to take your unused medications to your community pharmacy or other location for disposal.
  • Consult your pharmacist with any questions.

More on Pharmaceutical Collection Programs

Pharmaceutical collection programs allow individuals to safely dispose of unused medications by taking or mailing them to an approved collection center, who typically incinerate these wastes.From an environmental standpoint, this may be a better solution than disposing of the medicine in the trash, because trash is often landfilled, and the runoff from these sites could find its way into our water resources.

The collection concept has been successfully implemented in Europe, Canada and Australia for more than 10 years and it is gaining popularity in the U.S.Several states, cities, and counties throughout have successfully initiated long-term pharmaceutical collection programs, while others have organized single-day or annual collection events. Some programs have been specifically dedicated to collection of households' medicines, while others have accepted pharmaceuticals as part of a larger household hazardous waste collection program.

Finding a Local Solution

To find the best solution for unused medications in your area, your will need to do some investigative work.Two reliable sources of information are your pharmacist and local government.When contacting your county or city, look for someone in the solid waste disposal department and ask about collection programs.

*November 2009 update. The FDA now recommends that certain medicines are best disposed of by flushing down the drain. This is a controversial decision and could be reversed sometime in the future.


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