How to Safely Dispose Medication

How to Safely Dispose Medication

Blurred pill bottles with the text Gotta Safely Dispose Medication

Many of us have unfinished or expired prescriptions in the house. Over-the-counter medication also expires. It is not safe to keep them around. But do you know how to safely dispose medication?

If you flush it or wash it down the drain, it ends up in the sewage system. Pharmaceuticals can navigate through the water treatment plants and end up in the groundwater and our waterways. Human beings, fish, animals, plant-life, bird, and our precious pets all rely on water. Controlling what goes down the drain protects the environment.

Throwing that medicine into the trash isn’t always the best idea either. Things in the trash could end up ingested. Trash easily leeches into the earth and oceans. So, what are you supposed to do with that medication? Glad you asked!

Why Do You Need to Dispose Medication at All?

What is safe for you may be harmful to someone else. Child-proof bottle caps do not always keep out curious young hands or paws. The CDC reports that tens of thousands of children under 5 years old are treated each year from unintentional overdoses.

Some medications are at risk of bacterial growth or degrade over time. So that medication may not be safe after the expiration date. Check the packaging for storage and temperature needs. Dark humid places like your bathroom may not be the best place for your prescriptions.

And, what if you have more than one prescription bottle in the cabinet? Do you read the full label each time before you pop that pill to know what you are taking? Did you grab the current prescription or the one that expired three years ago?

Take Your Medication

purple cartoonish bottle with label Take Your Meds

If a doctor prescribed medication as a course of treatment, then follow that program in full. It is important to finish that full course of treatment even if you start feeling better.

Talk to your doctor before stopping or changing your treatment plan. There could be medical impacts if you don’t finish the entire prescription.

And, confirm with your doctor before restarting any prescription after a break. You may need to start a new complete course. Or, you may not be able to take it again for a certain duration of time.

Keep track of the medications of everyone in the household. Store them each safely in the required temperature. Make sure there is an easy way for everyone to locate their own medication.

Gather Unused and Expired Medication

Go around the house. Check the cabinets, drawers, dresser, night stand, countertops, and shelves. Look in the refrigerator and pantry. Gather all the prescription medication that has expired or is no longer needed. Check the label for storage instructions. If it was stored outside of the temperature requirements, grab that too.

Don’t just look for pill bottles. Also look for the medical lotions, liquids, patches, and ointments. And look for any expired over-the-counter products, vitamins, and dietary supplements. While you are at it, scoop up the expired and unneeded pet medication too. But separate out the needles, syringes, and medical devices.

Some medications are absorbed through the skin. So avoid touching or ingesting them. Do not open the capsules. Do not crush the pills. Avoid mixing the liquids. Keep them in their containers and packaging. Put it all into a sealed container like a plastic bag.

Protect Your Information

Hand holding medication container with marked out information (to hide text)

No one needs to know who is taking what medication when. Remove all the labels. Mark out or peel off anything and everything on the label.

Hold it up to a bright light. Check the back of the label or inside the container to make sure the information cannot be read from behind. Look in every direction. Is it a glossy label where the marker can be wiped off?

Even the type of vitamins you take can be information giveaways. When or why you started or stopped taking neonatal vitamins is no one’s business. Any medical information can be used against you these days.

Locate a Way to Safely Dispose Medication

Now that you gathered it, you need to properly dispose it. Don’t flush it, wash it, trash it, or give it away. And while you’re at it, don’t pour anything corrosive, toxic, ignitable, or reactive down the drain or toilet either. Read the label. Some prescriptions have specific disposal instructions.

If there are no specific disposal instructions, then find a nearby authorized drug collection site or other safe disposal options.

Large standing container with arrow pointing down to an image of a prescription bottle

  • local drug stores
  • law enforcement offices
  • hospitals and clinics
  • medical centers
  • grocery pharmacies
  • water treatment centers
  • waste management facilities
  • drug take back events
  • household hazardous waste disposal events
  • drug mail-back programs

Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) are resourceful in solving problems. But we are sometimes limited by our environment and options in country. Sometimes trash ends up in makeshift landfills that are open to people, insect, and animals. Medication washes into nearby lakes and rivers where it ends up in the water supply. Ask your PCMO about how to safely dispose medication during service.

In the USA, RPCVs often have additional options. Is there an upcoming National Prescription Drug Take Back Day? The U. S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) organizes those community collections twice a year around the country.

Check to see if your local community hold household hazardous waste disposal events. And, you can also search for a controlled substance public disposal drop-off location on the Department of Justice’s Diversion Control Division search tool

Be a Part of the Solution Not the Pollution

Keep your household safe. Store medication properly. And dispose medication safely. If the medication is not expired and not opened, look into the possibility of donating it. We only have one Earth. Let’s take care of it while we are taking care of ourselves and each other.


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