Medicine Disposal Myths and Facts


Put medicines in their place!

We can all now agree that flushing unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs that may be sitting around your home is not the right way to get rid of them.  But you may have been hearing some confusing advice lately about what you SHOULD do with leftover medicines.

Some say drugs should be thrown in the trash, mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds.  But “experts” who only talk about trash disposal of medicines are not telling the full story.  There’s a safer way.

Returning your unwanted medicines to a take-back program is the safest and most environmentally protective way to dispose of unused medication.

Throwing unused medicines in the trash is better than flushing, but it does not adequately protect people and our environment from exposure to potentially dangerous drugs.

FACT:  The FDA, DEA, EPA, Office of Drug Control Policy and numberous agencies in Washington State recommend using medicine take-back programs as the best way to dispose of your unwanted medicines.

These agencies advise trash disposal ONLY as a “last resort” option until all our communities have convenient take-back options. Snohomish and Kitsap Counties have local ordinances prohibiting disposal of medicines in the garbage.

Myth #1  – Mixing medicines with coffee grounds or kitty litter before throwing them in the trash will prevent drug theft.

Fact: Throwing medicines in the garbage is not safe – especially for controlled substances like OxyContin, narcotics and other highly addictive and dangerous drugs – because the drugs can be found and used by others, even if they are mixed with undesirable materials like coffee grounds or kitty litter. Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the country. Prevent drug theft and abuse by using a medicine take-back program to dispose of your unwanted medicines.  It’s the best way to protect our kids and families.

“Unused prescription drugs thrown in the trash can be retrieved and abused or illegally sold…. Take back programs are the best way to dispose of old drugs.” – DEA, April 30, 2011

Myth #2  – It’s a good idea to crush medicines before throwing in the trash.

Fact: Crushing pills to disguise them before disposal is difficult and dangerous and puts the handler at risk of exposure to the drug through skin contact or by breathing in the dust.  Many medications are designed to release in the body over time, and crushing pills can release a dangerously high dose. The pill dust may endanger other family members and pets in the home, and some medications can be especially harmful to children and women of childbearing age.

Myth #3  – The best way to protect children from accidental poisoning is to throw medicines in the trash.

Fact: Throwing unwanted medicines in the household trash does not ensure that curious kids can’t get at them. There’s an epidemic of accidental poisonings from medicines in our homes – and children are the most common victims. Also, pets and animals are not deterred by kitty litter or other substances when getting into the trash and can potentially ingest the unused medicines.  Human medications are the leading cause of pet poisonings, most often from trash-related toxic exposures.

Protect your kids and keep your family safe by storing your medicines securely at home.  When you have medicines that are expired or unwanted, use a medicine take-back program – it’s the safest way to dispose of unused medication.

Myth #4  – It’s ok to flush medicines down the toilet or pour them down the drain.  The FDA encourages this because it’s not really harmful to the environment.

Fact: Medicines that are flushed or poured down the drain can end up polluting our waters, impacting aquatic species, and contaminating our food and water supplies.  Most medicines are not removed by wastewater treatment plants or septic systems.  Scientists have found medicines in surface, ground and marine waters as well as soils and sediments in the Pacific Northwest.  Even at very low levels, medicines in the environment hurt aquatic life. Using a medicine take-back program is a simple,  sensible way to reduce the amount of medicines entering the environment.


Myth #5  –  There is no reason why unwanted medicines cannot be put in landfills.

Fact: Modern landfills are well-designed, safe, and handle standard household waste well.  However, medicines are a special type of hazardous chemical that we need to keep out of our solid waste system and landfills to prevent harm to people and the environment.  Drugs can be very toxic for people and wildlife, even in low doses. Just as we do not put used motor oil or leftover paint thinner in the trash, we should not put these extremely potent pharmaceutical chemicals into unsecure curbside trash cans.

How can medicines thrown in the garbage get into the environment?  Unwanted drugs are still chemically active when they are thrown in the trash, even if mixed with kitty litter or coffee grounds. Several studies have shown that medicines in a landfill can be released to the local environment through the landfill liquid – or “garbage juice” – that may be collected and sent to wastewater treatment plants. Because wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove medicines, drugs may be discharged to rivers and bays.

Unwanted medicines should be disposed of properly like other household hazardous wastes. Medicine take-back programs are the best way to dispose of unwanted medicine.