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How to Dispose of Old Medications Safely

Updated April 17, 2017

It is not uncommon to find old prescription and over-the-counter medications in the medicine cabinet. The medications may simply be expired, a drug replaced with a new prescription, an uncompleted course of antibiotics, or drugs belonging to a deceased friend or family member. Flushing them down the toilet is not recommended. While this action may put the drugs out of reach of people inclined to abuse or misuse them, it sends potentially dangerous substances (e.g. hormone replacement therapy, psychiatric drugs or antibiotics) into the water supply and contaminates the environment. Properly discarding these drugs is imperative.

Limit the amount of over-the-counter medications purchased and stored in the medicine cabinet so that they are not stored past their expiration date. Also, ask the physician and pharmacist to prescribe and provide only the minimum amount of medication needed (e.g. one-month supply instead of a six-month supply) so that if the medication needs to be changed, the amount of medication needing to be disposed of is reduced drastically.

Make use of pharmaceutical take-back programs. Contact the local pharmacy or the local city or county government to locate medication take-back programs, which allows people to bring in unused drugs for acceptable forms of disposal. Note that the programs may not agree to take back narcotics or controlled substances. Contact personal physicians to find out if they have receptacles for disposal of medications. Properly store the medication by locking the drugs up to prevent accidental or purposeful misuse or abuse until a take-back program becomes available.

Throw away medications using special precautions. Crush pills and empty capsules, then combine them with liquid medications in a coffee, margarine or fabric softener container. Make the drugs uninviting by adding dirt, cat litter or cayenne pepper. Tightly seal the containers and secure the lids with duct tape. Conceal personal information on labels (i.e. patient's name, prescription information and doctor's name) by scratching the label or covering the information with a permanent marker. Collect the medicine bottles in zipper baggies sealed with duct tape. Hide both the containers and medicine bottles in the garbage can, mixed in with the other trash.

Things You'll Need

  • Zip-top bags
  • Coffee cans
  • Margarine tubs
  • Fabric softener bottles
  • Duct tape
  • Permanent marker
  • Garbage cans
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About the Author

Joan Whetzel has been writing professionally since 1998. She has written juvenile nonfiction, movie and television scripts and adult nonfiction. Her juvenile nonfiction has appeared in such magazines as "Tech Directions," "Connect" and "Class Act." She was part of the production team that produced the documentary "Fuel for Thought" on Houston PBS. She has also written articles for Katy Magazine Online.