Expert Advice

How should I get rid of old medications?

Pouring medications down the sink causes pollution that water-treatment facilities are not designed to handle.

How should I get rid of old medications?
Pin it

IT DEPENDS on the medication. Here are some general guidelines:

Pills Take expired or unwanted medication out of its original bottle and mix it with inedible items like coffee grounds and discard in the garbage. (The idea is to deter small children or animals from eating the medications should they discover them in the trash.) Do not compost. Remove and shred the label, which contains personal information about medical history, from the original bottle and recycle.

Liquids Keep them in their original container but remove and recycle the label and add enough table salt, flour, charcoal, or nontoxic powdered spice such as turmeric or mustard to the liquid to make a mixture that would discourage any person or animal from eating it. Discard in the trash. Flushables Pouring medications down the sink prevents children and pets from accidentally ingesting them, but many medications (hormones, personal care products) cause pollution that water-treatment facilities are not designed to handle. Now the FDA has a “lucky 13” list of drugs, including Percocet and OxyContin, that can be flushed down the toilet with minimal harm to the environment. (See whitehousedrug disposal.html.)

Chemotherapy drugs These are extremely potent and require special handling, so talk to your health care provider or pharmacist about how to get rid of them.

Nonrecyclables Do not try to recycle syringes, needles, vials, ampoules, or bottles. Diabetics can use the BD Sharps Disposal by Mail system for safe needle disposal. See for details. Here are some extra tips for managing your medicines:

Check expiration dates Before you buy a product, look at the use by date. If it’s time is up, mention it to the pharmacist or store manager. Buy in smaller amounts (i.e., 50 tablets versus 100) to avoid having meds expire before you use them.

Contact your health office Communitywide medication disposal events are growing in popularity. Check with your county health office to find one near you.

Don’t share Sharing medications is the worst way to dispose of them. Although only 13 percent of surveyed adults admit to sharing medications, experts estimate that twice that number actually do. Roughly 20,000 unintentional drug-poisoning deaths occur annually. —Doug Hoey, pharmacist, COO, National Community Pharmacists Association