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How to Safely Dispose of Your Old Medications

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Oct 9, 2020.

National Prescription Drug Take Back Day

On Saturday, October 24 2020 - 10AM to 2PM local time, communities will team up with law enforcement to host the next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) hosts a no-questions asked National Prescription Drug Take-Back event twice per year. On this day, collection sites are set up in local cities throughout the nation for safe disposal of prescription drugs, including opioids. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staffed collection sites may be limited. The DEA wants to ensure the public that there are other safe ways they can dispose of unwanted prescription drugs, including at-home disposal and year-round collection sites.

  1. The best way to dispose of most types of unused or expired medicines (both prescription and over the counter) is to drop off the medicine at a drug take back site, location, or program immediately.
  2. If this is not possible, and your medicine is on the FDA Flush List, the next best option is to flush this dangerous, possibly life-threatening medicine down the toilet.
  3. If the medicine is not on the Flush List, follow these instructions to safely dispose of the medicine in your trash at home.

What is National Prescription Drug Take Back Day?

Opioid abuse in the U.S. remains a top public health concern. Consumers should dispose of expired, unwanted, or unused medicines as quickly as possible to help reduce accidental or intentional overdoses or illegal abuse. The DEA’s “Take-Back” initiative is one of several strategies to reduce prescription drug abuse and diversion in the nation.

During Take-Back Days collection sites are set up in local cities throughout the nation for safe disposal of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs you have at home, including opioids. Other items accepted usually include pet medicines and OTC vitamins. Take Back Days occur each October and April.

  • You can call the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA's) Office of Diversion Control’s Registration Call Center at 1-800-882-9539 or check the DEA's website for authorized collection sites in your area. 
  • DEA provides a list of permanent (year round) Controlled Substance Public Disposal Locations for use when Take Back Days are not available. Your local pharmacy or law enforcement may have one in your neighborhood. You can also find drop off locations by typing in "drug disposal near me" or "medication disposal near me" ton Google Maps to find your nearest drug disposal site.
  • Consumers should utilize the guidelines Disposal of Unused Medicines: What You Should Know as posted by the FDA if they are not able to attend a scheduled Take-Back Day or find an authorized drop off location.
  • Beginning with the October 2019 campaign, DEA started accepted vaping devices and cartridges in addition to medications at all of its drop-off locations. 
  • The disposal services are free and anonymous for consumers, with no questions asked.

DEA began hosting National Prescription Drug Take-Back events in 2010. At the last Take-Back Day in October 2019 over 6,100 sites across the nation collected unwanted or expired medications totaling 882,919 pounds (441.5 tons). The total amount of prescription drugs collected by DEA since the fall of 2010 is over 12,000,000 lbs. (over 6300 tons).

Which items are not accepted at Take Back Day events?

Certain items generally are not accepted at the drop box. Check with the collector ahead of time to determine what items are specifically not accepted. 

  • Syringes, needles or other sharps
  • Inhalers, such as those for asthma
  • Aerosol cans
  • Mercury thermometers
  • Iodine-containing medications
  • Illegal drugs or substances (including marijuana which is still a schedule 1 drug under federal law), and any prescription medications obtained illegally.

Can I throw medicine in the trash?

Follow your healthcare provider's instructions specifically for disposing of medicines if these were provided. With certain precautions, most, BUT NOT ALL, medications can be thrown in the trash. These include prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in pills, liquids, drops, patches, and creams. Look at the package insert of your medication to see if special instructions exist for disposal. 

Inhalers for asthma or other breathing conditions could be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. To properly dispose of these products and follow local regulations and laws, contact your trash and recycling facility.

Be aware that some medicines should only be flushed when drop off facilities are not available because they are too dangerous to leave in the trash.

If no DEA-authorized collection sites are available, and no Take Back Days are scheduled in your area, you can follow these steps to dispose of most medicines in the household trash:

  1. Mix medicines with an unpalatable substance such as dirt, used coffee grounds, or kitty litter. Take them out of their original container first. Do not crush tablets or capsules before mixing.
  2. Place the mixture in a sealed container (sealed plastic bag or empty can) to prevent the drug from leaking into the garbage.
  3. Throw the container in the trash.
  4. When disposing of empty prescription bottles or packages, be sure to mark out identifying personal information to make it unreadable.

Can I flush medicines down the toilet?

Some medications should be flushed down the toilet when Take Back Day or permanent Controlled Substance Public Disposal Locations are not accessible because even one accidental dose could be fatal. These medications may be especially harmful -- or fatal -- to children and pets. They are also sought after by people who are looking to abuse these potent, and possibly deadly, medicines.

Remember only flush medicines on the flush list if a take-back option is not readily available.

You can access the FDA list of medications that should be flushed down the toilet at this link.

  • One common example is fentanyl (Duragesic) patch, a powerful narcotic pain medication. Instead of placing used or unwanted fentanyl patches in the trash where they could be accidentally ingested, patients should dispose of them by flushing down the toilet as described in the patient leaflet.
  • FDA recommends disposing of used fentanyl patches immediately after taking them off of the skin. Fold the patch in half so that the sticky sides meet, and then flush it down the toilet.
  • Used or unneeded fentanyl patches should NOT be placed in the household trash where children or pets can find them. You can read more about disposing of fentanyl patches in the product Medication Guide.
  • Be sure to read your prescription information that comes with any medication from the pharmacy. Many medications have specific directions for disposal of unwanted or expired medications explained in the patient leaflet.
  • Ask your pharmacist for specific directions if you aren't sure how to dispose of your medicine.

Does flushing medications down the toilet pose a risk to the environment?

FDA has stated that disposal of these select few medicines by flushing down the toilet would only contribute to a small fraction of the total amount of medicine found in surface and drinking water. FDA environmental authorities state most medicines in water are a result of elimination via the body from urine or feces. The FDA and EPA state there has been no indication of environmental effects due to flushing medications.

FDA also states that based on available data, the risk to humans from accidental exposure to these potent medications far outweighs the environmental risk.

Other points for safe drug disposal

  • Inhalers and aerosol products can be dangerous if punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator. Read the handling instructions on your inhaler. As recommended by the FDA, contact your local trash and recycling facility to confirm local laws about disposal of inhalers and aerosols.
  • Residents of assisted living communities and skilled nursing facilities and their family members should check with their community health care management team to learn the best way to dispose of used or unneeded medicines. Learn more here.
  • Protect your identity, too. Before you throw away the medication container or bottle, fully mark out any personal information such as your name, address, and prescription number to protect your privacy. Do not place prescription bottles with personal information in collection receptacles or mail-back packages.

What is being done to address the opioid epidemic?

Two federal agencies have proposed measures to try to rein in prescription painkiller overprescribing.

  • A guideline published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain -- and new boxed warning label changes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) highlight the need to educate health care professionals to address overprescribing and safe discontinuation of opioids.
  • The U.S. government has allotted billions of dollars in the federal budget towards the expanding opioid crisis, including for treatment.

Slideshow: Chronic Pain Management: A Healthcare Professional's Guide

The DEA also announced mandates to lower the production of powerful prescription opioids that are fueling the epidemic of addiction, overdose, and fatalities. Additional strategies include education of health care providers, patients, parents and youth; establishing prescription drug monitoring programs in all 50 states, and increased enforcement to address illicit methods of prescription drug diversion.

Abuse-deterrent formulations of opioids have been developed, too. It's important to remember that the most common way that drugs are abused — simply by swallowing a handful of them — can’t be stopped with abuse-deterrent technology. That's one reason why it's so important to dispose of prescription medicines safely and quickly, as recommended.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.