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How Can You Safely Get Rid of Expired Drugs?

Do you have expired or unneeded medications just sitting in your drawer or medicine cabinet? Did you know that there are proper ways to get rid of them? The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that in 2016 it collected nearly 447 tons of unused medication in a single weekend during its annual National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. This is just one program that provides a safe, convenient, and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs. If you need to get rid of expired or unwanted medication, be sure to dispose of them properly. It’s important for our families and environment.

Why Safety Is a Concern

Safe removal of unwanted medicine protects you and others (think children and pets) in your home from accidental use. Children are especially vulnerable to poisoning in the home. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60,000 young children visit the emergency room each year because they got into medicines while their parents or caregivers were not looking.

Additionally, leftover controlled substances, such as narcotic pain medications, from that surgery or toothache you had years ago, can pose a threat for accidental use or intentional misuse or abuse for anyone in your home.

Inhalers are very common, and it’s important to dispose of them properly, too. Some inhalers contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s), which are harmful to the ozone layer if CFC’s are released from the container (e.g., inhaler is punctured or comes into contact with fire).

Drug Take-Back Programs

Many communities offer drug “take back” programs to facilitate the proper disposal of unneeded or expired medications. Look for local groups that may sponsor medicine take-back programs, such as law enforcement agencies, waste management authorities, state government agencies, and even pharmacies.

To find a take-back program near you:

  • Call your local law enforcement agency or your town’s waste collection service.
  • Find a DEA-authorized collector near you. Collection sites may be your community or hospital pharmacy or your local law enforcement agency. There may even be mail back programs or collection boxes. Check out the DEA website or call 1-800-882-9539 for more information.
  • Use the pharmacy locator to find a community pharmacy that participates in a take-back program near you on the National Community Pharmacists Association website.

When bringing medicines contained in prescription bottles to a take-back or collection program, be sure to black out your name, address and other personal information to protect your identity.

Flushing or Throwing Away?

If take-back programs are not available in your local area, check the label or patient information that comes with the medicine to see if there is a recommended way to dispose of the medicine.

To protect the environment, it is not good to flush most medicines down the sink or toilet; however, there may be some exceptions. For a complete list of drugs that are flushable, see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Safe Disposal website.

If there are no take-back programs nearby and flushing is not recommended, the FDA recommends throwing them in the household trash as an alternative. Even still, it’s important to take a few precautions while doing so.

Follow these simple steps to dispose of unneeded medicine:

  1. Mix medicines (without crushing tablets or capsules) into dirt, kitty litter, sawdust or used coffee grounds
  2. Place the mixture in a safe container, such as a sealed plastic bag
  3. To safely get rid of old pill containers, scratch out all personal information on the prescription label of your empty pill bottle or empty medicine packaging to make it unreadable, then dispose of the container
  4. When it comes to inhalers, contact your local waste management and recycling center to make sure you are disposing of them properly

For more information about safe drug disposal, contact the FDA at (855) 543-3784, or (301) 796-3400; website: [email protected].

Caroline Pak, PharmD, is a pharmacist and the Medical Editor-in-Chief for Pfizer’s Get Healthy Stay Healthy website.



  • 1. Drug Enforcement Agency. DEA collects record-setting amount of meds at latest national Rx take-back day. Accessed September 14, 2016.
  • 2. Food and Drug Administration. How to dispose of unused medicines. Accessed September 14, 2016.
  • 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Put your medicines up and away and out of sight. Accessed October 14, 2016.
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