Guidelines for Disposal of Medications

This summer, a police department in Tennessee made news after a hyperbolic Facebook post about “Meth Gators” went viral. The joke was intended to create awareness to a growing problem of drugs and medications ending up the in the local water source that affect wildlife and may not be able to be completely filtered out of city water systems.  While the fabled Meth Gator is just a rural myth, disposing of unused drugs the appropriate way is a real concern. Improper disposal can cause harm to others.

Here are some guidelines to follow if you have unused drugs you need to throw away…

Can I flush or throw out unused drugs?

Flushing drugs down the toilet has long been a socially acceptable way to discard unused drugs, especially popular among TV’s small-time drug dealers in every crime series ever created. But let’s be very clear about this one. It is not safe to flush or throw drugs away — even if the FDA says you can. Another popular belief is that you can just throw them away in the trash. However, that is not an appropriate method of disposal either.  The environmental effects of drugs thrown in the trash or flushed down the toilet are vast, affecting everything from drinking water to wildlife. Not to mention the risks of accidental poisoning or overdose if they are found and taken inappropriately.

The best method for drug disposal

To discard unwanted, unused, or expired drugs, the best option is to locate a take back program in your city or community and drop-off the medication there immediately.  Many Pharmacies and Police stations have year round resources – ask them! 

Some police stations and pharmacies will accept only controlled substances. If you want to dispose of other unused ask your pharmacist for guidance. Click here for a link to a drug disposal locator that will allow you to find nearby drop-off locations and what type of drugs each location will receive. 

Though you can dispose of unwanted drugs year-round, the Drug Enforcement Administration has created The National Prescription Drug Take Back Day which, according to the NDEA, “aims to provide a safe, convenient, and responsible means of disposing of prescription drugs, while also educating the general public about the potential for abuse of medications.” These events were created to “provide an opportunity for Americans to prevent drug addiction and overdose deaths.”

Guidelines to follow if you MUST throw drugs in the trash

If you cannot dispose of your drugs at a take back location because there is not one near you, the FDA recommends the following:

  1. Mix (do not crush) drugs with another unappealing substance like cat litter, dirt, or used coffee grounds:
    this discourages the reuse or sale of these drugs and medications if found. 
  2. Place the mixture in a sealed container like a plastic bag: 
    this will keep them from being scattered and slow down the likelihood of being dissolved in water supply.
  3. Throw away the sealed container in your household trash

With old medication bottles, remember to scratch out all personal information and be sure they are completely empty before recycling or throwing away. Click here to found out how you can donate your old prescription and over-the-counter medication bottles for reuse in developing countries. 

To avoid harm to others, it’s important to properly discard your old medications in ways that do not pose as a poisonous hazard or enable misuse, especially by teens and young adults. It also protects pets & wildlife from being poisoned by consumption by keeping medications out of our water sources.


Concerned about how to get rid of old needles? Click here for information about how to properly dispose of needles and syringes.


Additional Helpful Sources:

DEA Diversion Control Division

FDA safe drug disposal guidelines

DEA Regulations White Paper on Disposal and Destruction of controlled substances