The Opioid Crisis: Proactive Ways to Dispose of Unused Medication

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By Maricha Ellis

According to a recent study from the Department of Health and Human Resources (HHS), more than 240 million prescriptions were written for opioids in one year. This is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of opioid pills.

With so many opioids sitting in medicine cabinets across the country, it begs the question: what is the best way to dispose of unused medication? 

Unfortunately, safely removing leftover medication from medicine cabinets isn’t as simple as flushing the pills down the toilet, which is incredibly dangerous for our water supply and environment. A new study from Stericycle shows that Americans hold on to their unused prescriptions for future use for fear of their illness returning (32 percent), or because they don’t know how to get rid of them (15 percent). In fact, 42% percent of Americans currently have 1-3 bottles leftover/unused prescription pills in their medicine cabinet.



Additionally, Half (50.5 percent) of people who abuse prescription drugs receive them from friends and family for free, according to data from the National Survey for Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

By holding on to our unused medications, we may unknowingly be contributing to the problem. Luckily, there are a number of ways you can do your part to safely dispose of your expired or unwanted medications – without flushing them down the toilet or throwing them in the trash.

Utilize Drug Take Back Programs   

Several times per year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts National Prescription Drug Take Back Day to provide a safe, convenient and responsible means of disposing of medications.

The DEA first launched its Take Back Day in 2010 and has since collected more than 9 million pounds of medicine from the public. Last fall’s Take Back Day event collected a record-setting 912,305 pounds of prescription drugs.

Additionally, some states and counties are leading specific take back initiatives in an effort to reduce the public health and environmental impacts of unused drugs.

For example, five New York state hospitals recently started collecting unused pharmaceuticals free of charge as part of a six-month drug take back pilot program, which encourages residents to drop off expired or leftover medications via collection kiosks and pre-paid mailback envelopes for free.

Designed and implemented by the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) and the New York Product Stewardship Council (NYPSC), this pilot drug take back program offers residents in Delaware, Monroe, Otsego, and St. Lawrence counties convenient locations to dispose of medications – one part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce the public health and environmental impacts of unused drugs.

For more information on national and state take back programs, visit the DEA National Take Back Day – complete with a collection site locator – and be sure to research your state and county-specific programs.

Utilize Drug Collection Kiosks 

Retail stores and hospitals are making it easier than ever for consumers to dispose of unwanted medication by installing drug collection kiosks.

Walgreens and waste disposal company Stericycle Environmental Solutions recently teamed up to install more than 600 drug collection kiosks in Walgreens stores nationwide to provide a safe, convenient and free way for consumers to return unused medication.

In the first ongoing national effort of its kind by a retailer, Walgreens has successfully collected and safely disposed of more than 270 tons of medication through Stericycle collection kiosks placed in more than 600 pharmacies across 45 states and the District of Columbia. The retailer has ambitious plans to expand to 1,500 kiosks over the next two years.

Additionally, Kaiser Permanente recently installed kiosks in its hospital pharmacy lobbies. The kiosks are serviced by highly trained technicians who routinely service pharmaceutical locations. The kiosks are also complete with a scale so that when the weight hits a maximum capacity, a light will turn on to reduce overflow.

In addition to retail stores and hospitals, medication collection kiosks are also great for long-term care facilities. In fact, collection kiosks not only help hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and pharmacies protect communities and the environment, but also enable them to protect their business. The proper disposal of controlled substances for medical facilities, through services like Stericycle’s CsRx, help facilities navigate and maintain compliance while mitigating the risk of institutional drug diversion.

Ask Your Workplace About Medication Collection Options

Providing a convenient, cost-effective way for employees to dispose of the unused and expired medications in their medicine cabinets is a simple way to proactively combat the opioid crisis within the workplace.

By providing medication mailback envelopes at work, employees can safely remove their unneeded medication from their homes and prevent opportunities for opioid abuse. Employees simply place the medication within these pre-paid, pre-addressed envelopes and place in the mail. They are then transported to a facility that safely disposes of the medication.

By offering consumers the opportunity to manage their expired prescriptions in a socially and environmentally conscious way, waste medications that would have previously been thrown away or flushed have instead safely made their way to proper disposal via incineration.

Maricha Ellis is Vice President of Marketing and Sales Operations for Stericycle Environmental Solutions. 

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