3 Things You Need to Know About the Proper Disposal of Unused Medications

Updated on October 27, 2020
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Many medicine cabinets all around the world are full of unused or expired medications. A survey done by Consumer Reports back in 2017 states that one-third of Americans haven’t cleaned their medicine cabinets for at least half a decade. If you added it all up in total in 2017, that would account for 200 million pounds of unused medicine.

Now, this would seem like just a small case of disorganization since most of us are busy and don’t have that much time in our hands to clean our medicine cabinets. However, failing to dispose of unneeded medicine can lead to hazardous consequences. This is true for a lot of prescription medicines, especially opioids. 

One of the main reasons is that unused and expired medication can be harmful to the body when used by someone else. Not only that, the medicine may not work as intended past their expiration date. That said, here are some things you need to know when disposing of unused or expired medications.

Do Not Flush Unused Medications

Earlier this decade, consumers in the US were advised to flush their unneeded medications to dispose of them properly. However, scientists are advising against it because it has been proven that doing this will contaminate the water. 

Water in the US is being recycled for a plethora of purposes, which includes sanitization. While yes, there are benefits to flushing our medications, such as it’s an easy way of disposing of meds and is convenient for many people. But, the risks of doing so far outweigh the benefits.

However, not all medications are allowed to be flushed. Narcotic medications and other Drug Enforcement Agency regulated drugs are still advised to be flushed to avoid them retrieved and used for substance abuse. 

For any other medication, they advise people to put them in a sealed container before throwing them in the trash. It’s also best to mix them with dirt or kitty litter to prevent them from leaking into the environment. This is because dirt and kitty litter can absorb the medicine well, especially cream and liquid medications.

Disposing Needles and Syringes

Proper disposing of needles and syringes prevents other people from getting cuts or punctures from contaminated paraphernalia. Sadly, not a lot of people know how to dispose of them properly and safely. 

One thing you can do to dispose of them is to put a needle or a syringe in a sharps disposal right after using them. When doing so, remember to put it away in places where children and animals won’t find or reach it. Also, make sure that you have plenty of sharp disposal containers lying around if you use many needles or syringes.

When you’re traveling, you can carry a travel-sized sharps disposal container for needle disposal. If you are traveling by plane, you can find information on the internet about properly disposing of them, especially from the Transportation Security Administration website.

Once your container is at least three-quarters full of needles, you can dispose of them at a drop-off point. These drop-off points are typically found in hospitals, pharmacies, or doctor’s offices. You can also throw them in a hazardous collection point if there are any of them nearby. Or you can mail them via mail-back programs run by the FDA.

Drug Take-Back Programs

If this is the first time you’ve heard about take-back programs, you’re in luck. The US Drug Enforcement Administration regularly sponsors the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day all around the country for people to learn proper medication disposal. This is to enforce the importance of safe disposal of prescription drugs and how improper disposal can harm the environment.

However, DEA is not the only organization that holds take-back programs regularly. Some communities hold some of their own programs. If the DEA or your community doesn’t hold this kind of program, you can ask your local enforcement where to find a DEA authorized collection area.

You can ask your pharmacist too. Some pharmacies typically offer on-site medicine drop-off boxes, mail-back programs, and other ways to assist you in disposing of your unused medications. 

However, it’s not without its drawbacks, though. Take-back mail-back programs seem to be a massive win for the environment, but according to some scientists, the pollution brought by these programs is far greater than just throwing them in the trash. Organizations that collect these thrown medications usually put them in a landfill or burn them away, which still has a significant contribution to the pollution in the environment.


Properly disposing of your medication is an excellent way to keep you and your loved ones safe while contributing to the environment. Taking your time to research about them is also a good option for you to know how to dispose of them properly by yourself or via a program run by the government. Whatever it is, disposing of your expired medications is always the right thing to do.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.