Why dispose of unused medications?

When you take prescription medication as your doctor directs, this often means taking it until all the pills are gone. However, if your doctor changes your dose, decides on a different medication, or prescribes a few extra pills, you may have medication left over. You may also have a medicine cabinet full of expired prescription and over-the-counter medication from the past.

Unused prescription and over-the-counter medication can be dangerous, especially to children and pets. Unused pain medication can even be a target for theft. This handout tells you how to get rid of your medications safely.

How NOT to dispose of medications

Many people aren’t aware of this, but most medications should NOT be poured down the sink, flushed down the toilet, or thrown directly in the trash in their original packaging. Here’s why:

  • Small amounts of medication can enter the water system when medication is poured down the sink or flushed down the toilet, even after the wastewater is treated.
  • Children or pets can find bottles of pills when they are thrown in the trash. They can also be found by thieves who go through trash cans to find pain medication or get your personal information from the bottles.

Note: There are a few medications that should be flushed — these are listed under Medicines recommended for disposal by flushing: medicine and active ingredient. Medications that should be flushed are less likely to contaminate the water supply, but they are extremely dangerous if swallowed by anyone other than the person for whom they were prescribed. Check to see if your medication is on the “do flush” list.

How to get rid of medications safely

Here are two ways to dispose of your leftover medications:

  • Drop them off at a drug collection site — this is the best option. Check with your police department to see if they have a drug collection program. Or, check for a current list of collection sites at Use Only as Directed.
  • If a drug collection program is not available in your area, follow these steps to dispose of the medications with your home trash:
    1. Pour medications from their bottles into a sealable bag. Remove or mark out any personal information on the bottles. Then throw the bottles away.
    2. Crush the pills or capsules in the bag. You may add a little water to make it easier.
    3. Mix in something unappetizing, such as kitty litter, coffee grounds, or dirt. This will help keep children or pets from eating the mixture.
    4. Seal the plastic bag and put it in the trash.