by Stahl RJ

image for pill splitting article If you have expired or unused prescription medications in your medicine cabinet, your first instinct may be to toss the old drugs in the trash or flush them down the toilet. There is a safer way to get rid of your unwanted medications.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) created the following guidelines for consumers. These guidelines were designed to keep people, animals, and the environment safe.

Read the Drug Label

First, read the drug label or patient information that is packaged with the medication. Here, you may find specific information regarding disposal. It is important that you do not flush the medication down the toilet unless the instructions tell you to do so. This is because drug residues can end up in the water systems—streams, rivers, lakes, and drinking water reservoirs.

There are only a few medications, like opioid pain relievers, that should be flushed. This is because these drugs are highly addictive. It is safer to keep these medications out of the trash and away from people who may abuse them.

Dispose or Drop Off

If the medication label does not have specific instructions for disposal, you have a couple of options:

  • Disposing of the medication in your trash
  • Dropping off your medication at a drug take-back program

Trash Disposal

You can throw away expired or unused medication in the trash. First you will have to prepare the medication so that it will be in a safer form. These instructions apply to both pills and liquids.

  • Remove the medication from its original bottle. Mix the drugs with something that would make them unappealing to people or pets who may go through the trash. You can use kitty litter or used coffee grounds.
  • Next, place the medication in a plastic bag with a seal or in a container with a lid. The goal is to make sure that the medication does not spill out of this packaging. You can also use tape to further secure the bag or container.
  • Do not forget about the original bottle that the medication came in. Your privacy is important. Remove the label or use a black marker to hide your name and any other information. Before placing the bottle in the trash, check to see if it has a recycling code on the bottom. If it does and your city or town’s recycling program accepts this type of plastic, place the bottle in your recycling bin.

Drug Take-Back Program

Some communities offer take-back programs where you can drop off your medications at a designated location. Visit your state’s government website to learn more, or call your city or town’s waste removal and recycling departments.

If you have old over-the-counter medications from your cabinet, you can apply the same trash disposal steps. Remember that you can always ask your pharmacist for advice about medication disposal and whether the pharmacy has a take-back program.

Safety with medication does not just end when you are feeling healthier. You can ensure the safety of people, pets, and the environment by carefully disposing of your drugs.


Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians 

US Food & Drug Administration 


Canadian Pharmacists Association 

Health Canada 


FDA has updated flush list for disposing of medications safely. American Pharmacists Association website. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2017.

How to dispose of unused medicines. US Food & Drug Administration website. Available at: Updated May 9, 2017. Accessed July 25, 2017.

How to dispose of unwanted medications. Florida Department of Environmental Protection website. Available at: Updated November 4, 2016. Accessed July 25, 2017.

How to dispose of unwanted medicine & personal care products. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and University of Illinois Extension website. Available at: Accessed July 25, 2017.

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