Do You Know the Correct Way to Throw Out Unused or Expired Prescription Medications?

Disposing it all at collection sites is one of the safest options.

opened bathroom medicine cabinet
Photo: Science Photo Library - TEK IMAGE. / Getty Images

Do you have unused or expired prescription medication in your medicine cabinet that needs to be tossed? Think twice before flushing those old painkillers or birth control pills. While this may seem like a safe option, it could directly impact wildlife. "Disposing of pharmaceuticals down a drain or toilet can result in the drugs seeping into groundwater, negatively impacting fish and animal populations in aquatic ecosystems," says Tim Carroll, spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), if there aren't disposal instructions on the prescription drug labeling and there isn't a drug take-back program available in your community, you can throw them away in your household trash by following a couple of important steps. First, remove the medicine from its container and mix it with another substance, like used coffee grounds or cat litter. Next, put the mixture in a sealable bag or another type of container that will ensure the medicine does not leak or break out of a garbage bag. While these steps do make this process safer, tossing meds in the garbage still isn't always the best method, Carroll says: "Modern landfills are designed to capture liquid that drains from the trash. Often, the chemicals make their way into rivers, lakes, and reservoirs."

Instead, drop excess medication off at a DEA–authorized "Drug Take Back" collector site. These locations are designed to securely round up unused or expired medicine and safely dispose of them. And collection sites can vary depending on where you live, so do your research. Authorized places can include retail stores, hospitals, pharmacies, or law enforcement facilities. These can also offer on-site medicine drop-off boxes, mail back programs, or in-home disposal methods that can help you dispose of your own unused or expired medications. To find one, visit or ask your pharmacist, and make sure to scratch off or obscure personal information on prescription labels. You can also go to Google MapsExternal Link Disclaimer and type in "drug disposal near me" or "medication disposal near me" to find the closest drug disposal site near you.

The DEA also hosts a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day multiple times a year. This event's goal is to provide "a safe, convenient, and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs, while also educating the general public about the potential for abuse of medications." The 20th event took place in April 2021 and included 5,060 total collection sites and 839,543 pounds (420 tons) of unused and expired medications collected that day. To participate in these events, visit for more information.

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