In April and Year-Round, a Safe Way to Dispose of Medications

April 28, 2016
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD

Is your medicine cabinet filled with expired or unused medications? It’s time to reclaim that valuable space and prevent accidental overdosing or abuse. Saturday, October 26, 2019, is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. share on twitter Twice a year, usually in the spring and fall, pharmacists and law enforcement officials encourage patients to return unused medications.

Unused medicines can be returned between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to:

  • Pharmacies

  • Fire stations

  • Police stations for safe disposal.

Find your nearest Take-Back site or call 1-800-882-9539 to participate in the next collection event.

Why do we need National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days?

In the United States, 4 billion prescriptions are written every year, and about 1 out of every 3 of these goes unused. Since its inception in 2010, Take-Back Day events have collected almost 2,500 tons of unwanted medications. That’s a lot, but there are even more expired or unused drugs sitting around in homes. To help people get rid of their unused medications year-round, permanent drop boxes have been placed in communities all over the nation.

Why should I return my old or unused medications?

The National Take-Back Initiative is run by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Drug Enforcement Agency. Its primary goal is to prevent people from accidentally overdosing on or abusing prescription medications by getting them out of the house.

As people grow more aware of the risks of addiction to painkillers like opioids, more effort is being made to safely collect unused prescriptions. Opioids are among the most common medications that are accidentally ingested by children. More than 3 in 5 teens say that prescription painkillers are easily found in their parents’ medicine cabinets. We can keep our children safe by carefully disposing of opioids and other unused medications.

How can I dispose of my prescription medications?

High-risk drugs like opioids can be difficult to return, because some areas do not allow pharmacies to accept them or other controlled substances. This includes some chemotherapies. However, state enforcement agencies have begun providing more opportunities to dispose of medications. MedReturn units are drop boxes located at participating police stations that allow you to securely and anonymously dispose of unused medications. For example, the Washington state program called Take Back Your Medicines features an online drop box finder. To support this cheap and effective way of removing dangerous prescription drugs from homes and streets, the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators offers an online, nationwide drop box finder, too. And, in February 2016, Walgreens began installing drug collection kiosks in more than 500 of their stores.

What if none of these options applies to me?

What if you can’t reach a collection site or kiosk on Take-Back Day or any other day?

  • Keep unused or expired medications secure until you can properly dispose of them. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids recommends keeping prescriptions in a secure lock box in the home.

  • Many drugs can be thrown away safely by mixing the medicine with inedible materials, like ash, dirt, used coffee grounds, or cat litter, and then placing the mixture in a plastic bag. The bag should be sealed with duct tape to prevent leaks.

  • Drugs with higher abuse risks, like oxycodone, hydrocodone, or fentanyl, are often given to people with cancer for pain control. Just one dose can be fatal to others, especially kids and pets. The Food and Drug Administration recommends flushing all forms of these drugs down the sink or toilet. If flushing is not allowed in your community, even these drugs can be safely thrown in the trash with just an extra step or two. Liquid medications can be combined with inedible materials first and then sealed in a bag and thrown away. Tablets can be dissolved with saltwater, mixed with an inedible, and then sealed in a bag and thrown away. Patches must be folded in half over themselves to prevent accidental contact with skin.

This graphic visually depicts the methods available to consumers to dispose of their unused, unwanted or expired medications. The methods, in order of preference, include readily available drug take-bake programs, disposal in the household trash and, for a few potentially dangerous medications, disposal by flushing in the toilet.

View a full-sized version of this infographic at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website.

Revised July 1, 2019.

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