The big impact of safe prescription disposal. How to dispose of unused medications safely

Oct 7, 2021


Across the United States, there is a quiet but crucial public safety and public health issue related to improper prescription medication disposal, creating the opportunity for abuse or misuse of prescriptions. Most misused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet where excess medications are stored past their intended use date instead of being properly disposed of. There is also a significant risk of taking incorrect medications, or accidental poisoning of children and pets by not destroying these drugs safely.

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

  • 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers.
  • 4.9 million people misused prescription stimulants.
  • 5.9 million people misused prescription tranquilizers or sedatives.

Correctly disposing unused medications prevents them from entering the water supply where they can wreak havoc on natural ecosystems or be cycled back into drinking water. For example, a wide range of pharmaceuticals (e.g., anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, hormones, and antibiotics) have been discovered in the drinking water supplies of at least 46 million Americans! We can act now with minor changes that will make an impact on the health of our community, our water supplies and ecosystems.

Twice a year, local law enforcement agencies hold prescription take-back days for people to clear their cabinets of old medications and dispose of them safely in a way that prevents medications from entering the water supply. Organized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)[Mc1] National Take Back Day is a national effort to collect unused, unwanted or expired medications through local law enforcement twice a year. So far, these efforts have collected over 4,500 tons of medications since the program began in 2016.

How does 4,500 tons of expired medication compare? It’s about:
  • Two-fifths as heavy as The Eiffel Tower
  • Three times as heavy as a Tree (Sierra Redwood)
  • 30 times as heavy as the Statue of Liberty
  • 40 times as heavy as a blue whale
  • 55 times as heavy as the Space Shuttle
How can I safely dispose of expired or excess medication?

There are two easy options for safely disposing of expired or excess medication that take minimal time to do but have a significant impact on our community. The best option is by dropping off these medications with your pharmacy for disposal, or on the National Take Back Day at local law enforcement agencies. Links to finding these resources in your area are listed below.

Local to You Services
Safe Disposal at Home

If you’re in an area where there are no disposal resources available, you can safely dispose of medicines following the United States Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. These steps are outlined as:

  1. Remove the prescription drugs out of their containers.
  2. Mix those drugs with undesirable substances such as cat litter or used coffee grounds.
  3. Put that mixture into a disposable container with a lid, such as an empty tub or sealable bag.
  4. Conceal or remove any personal identifications from drug containers including Rx number.
  5. Deposit the drug mixture container and empty drug containers in the trash.