Pharmaceutical Waste and Disposal: Medication Recycling

While some medicine bottles can be placed into recycling bins (depending on the type of plastic) after being cleaned and having the labels removed or blacked out, the same cannot be said of the medications they contain. Yet knowing how to dispose of these medications is important for the health of people, animals, and the environment. Since medication recycling isn’t as easy as dropping it off at the local recycling center, it may be tempting to just toss them into the trash or flush them down the toilet. Unfortunately, both options come with risks.

Can’t you just send medications back to manufacturers for pharmaceutical recycling? Unfortunately, this is currently not an option for any medications.

How to Safely Dispose of Medications

While it’s disappointing that medication or pharmaceutical recycling isn’t yet an option, f

ortunately, there are some easy, simple, safe ways to dispose of expired, unused, or unwanted medications. Perhaps the best option is to simply let the experts handle it.

For example, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration offers Drug Takeback Days with special collection sites throughout the nation. These allow individuals to drop off unused, expired, or unneeded medications at central locations where licensed medical waste companies can safely dispose of them, typically via incineration in safe and secure facilities.

In addition, many government agencies, pharmacies (including some national chains in participating areas), clinics, and doctors’ offices have programs in place to collect these unused medications where the potentially hazardous chemicals can be completely destroyed. Some provide disposal options on site. Others may offer mail-back envelopes to send unused medications to proper facilities to destroy the medications.

Types of medications typically accepted include:

  • Prescription medications (Scheduled II through V)
  • Non-controlled prescription medications
  • Over-the-counter medications

However, not all medications are accepted. For example, illegal drugs (schedule 1), needles, syringes or sharps, medical devices, and batteries are typically not allowed.

Is it Possible to Donate Medications?

Because many medications are expensive and difficult for some people to obtain, one appealing option is to be able to donate them.

Thirty-eight states have drug donation laws, and some states even have programs created to collect and redistribute specific drugs for eligible patients. However, the laws and programs vary significantly by state, and there are strict rules for who can donate and the types of medications that can be donated. Many states allow only healthcare facilities or pharmacies to donate drugs. Others only allow the donation of drugs with unopened, sealed, individually wrapped doses of medications (such as in blister packs). Drugs that are expired or controlled are never allowed.

When Can Medications Just Go in the Trash?

Household trash is the last option. But if you have no other way of disposing of your medications, you can start by pouring the medication (pills, liquids, capsules, etc.) into a sealable plastic bag or resealable container (e.g., coffee can or used plastic container) and dissolving it in water. Then add a material that makes it unappealing to animals, children, and others, such as sawdust, used coffee grounds, or kitty litter. Finally, seal the bag or container before dropping it in a trash can.

Because medication disposal guidelines are regularly updated, it’s important to keep up-to-date with specific instructions, especially for any medications that can be abused or toxic. Several medications should never be thrown away due to harmful or even deadly effects, even with a single dose. Some locations allow these medications to be flushed. Most, however, recommend avoiding flushing them as they can contaminate rivers, lakes, groundwater, or even downstream drinking water supplies. Look at your medication packaging or check with the manufacturer before disposal. And when in doubt, leave it to the experts to properly dispose of.

What About the Bottles?

With nearly 4 billion prescriptions filled every year in America, that leaves a lot of plastic bottles. Unfortunately, many curbside recycling programs don’t yet accept this type of plastic; that is, the orange translucent containers with the white lid that are typically made of polypropylene and marked as a #5 recyclable. While they may have the looked-for triangle, many recycling systems don’t have the equipment to recycle them properly.

How, then, can we keep them from filling up landfills?

There are a few options. You can first check your area to see if plastic #5 is accepted. One helpful tool is the Recycle Nation website where you can search by your location and type of recycling to see where it can be dropped off. With more consumer demand, hopefully, more options will be available for recycling.

In the meantime, if it isn’t available in your area, you can always repurpose bottles. Simply clean and use to:

  • Store jewelry, make-up, buttons, bobby pins, paperclips, coins, nails, and other small items—you can get creative with paint or decorate bottles to make them more fun and easier to spot different items
  • For travel containers for lotions, shampoos, conditioners, or liquid soaps
  • Store cotton swabs, cotton balls, or other self-care items
  • As an easy-to-carry sewing kit—try decorating with a favorite fabric swatch
  • Carry earbuds or other small, easy-to-lose, on-the-go items
  • Save dried seeds for next year’s garden

While medication recycling is something we hope manufacturers will be able to incorporate into their business models in the future, options vary drastically from state to state. Yet even if we can’t recycle pharmaceuticals, we can still take steps to properly dispose of them to help protect the children, animals, and the environment around us.


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