How to safely dispose of household pharmaceutical waste
Spring Drug Take Back Day April 22
The next Drug Take Back Day is April 22, 2023. To learn more about participating sites and what they accept, visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Services [exit DNR].
Drugs should not be poured down sinks or flushed down toilets. Find out how, where and why to safely dispose of household pharmaceutical waste in Wisconsin. Please follow the recommendations below.
Waste pharmaceuticals include a wide variety of items, such as over-the-counter and prescription medications, controlled substances and sharps. These wastes come in the form of solid pills and capsules, creams, liquids and aerosols. Guidelines for properly managing these wastes differ depending on where the waste is created, handled and disposed of.
- Collect household pharmaceutical waste responsibly
- See if your residential care facility may use household collection programs
- Learn about regulations for non-household pharmaceutical waste
Pharmaceutical waste and the environment
Reducing or safely disposing of household pharmaceuticals protects the environment. Flushing or pouring drugs down drains is not recommended. Most water treatment systems do not treat for pharmaceuticals, and septic tanks can leach chemicals into the environment.
The DNR recommends that household pharmaceuticals, including pet medications, be managed as follows.
Reduce pharmaceutical waste whenever possible
- Buy only as much medication as you can reasonably use before its expiration date.
- When your doctor prescribes a new medication, ask the doctor to prescribe only enough to see if the medication will work for you and in the lowest dose advisable. That way, if the medication doesn't suit you, less would go to waste.
- Reconsider the use of products that claim to be antimicrobial or antibacterial. Plain soap and water are as effective as antibacterial soaps. The Centers for Disease Control recommends plain soap in its handwashing procedure.
Reuse drugs when possible
Wisconsin allows certain pharmacies to take back unit doses of drugs for cancer and chronic diseases. Certain drugs can be returned for re-issuance through the Wisconsin Drug Repository [exit DNR].
Dispose of the remainder properly
If you have prescription medications containing narcotics or other controlled substances, contact your local police department to find out if the police will accept them. Some police departments accept non-controlled substances too, but you should find out exactly what yours will accept before dropping off the items.
When a loved one has died, arrange for proper destruction of the person's medications as soon as possible. A family member or the person responsible for the person's estate can now take the medications to a collection program or mail them to a destruction facility. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration rules no longer allow hospice and home care staff to manage controlled substances on behalf of their deceased patients.
Use pharmaceutical drop-off sites and collection events
Whenever possible, take your unused pharmaceuticals to a collection program or event. Before going to the collection site, ask whether to bring medications in their original containers or mixed together in a small, securely sealed plastic bag. Do not bring needles and other sharp items, inhalers, chemotherapy drugs or mercury items (e.g., thermometers) to a medication collection. These items cannot be incinerated along with other medications.
Find pharmaceutical drop-off sites and take-back events
Use mail-back programs
The DEA also now allows mail-back programs for unused household medications. Ask your local pharmacy, police department or healthcare provider if they have mail-back packages for you to use or buy. Be alert for fraudulent mail-back schemes. Legitimate mail-back packages must have pre-paid postage, unique identification numbers and be pre-addressed to a location authorized by the DEA for destroying unused medications. And, when possible, avoid leaving mail-back packages in unsecured rural mailboxes.
Use caution if storing medications
When storing unused pharmaceuticals before taking or sending them to a collection point, minimize the risk of accidental poisoning, overdose or diversion (illegal use by someone other than the intended person) by storing medications out of reach of children or in a locked cabinet.
Ensure safe disposal
If you have no other options, do not flush and do not burn your unused pharmaceuticals. Instead, dispose of them in the trash. Especially when there is a risk of accidental poisoning, overdose or diversion, it is better to dispose of household pharmaceuticals than to hang onto them. When placing unused pharmaceuticals in the trash:
- You may remove or mark over all labels that identify the materials as pharmaceuticals or that could provide personal information about you, including prescription information that someone could try to refill.
- You may render them unattractive to children and thieves by dissolving them in a small amount of water or alcohol, or by grinding them up and mixing them with coffee grounds or kitty litter.
- Put them in a second container or small, opaque plastic bag and hide them in your trash.
Never burn pharmaceuticals or personal care products in a burn barrel. Uncontrolled burning can create dioxins and other air pollutants.
Beware of medicine disposal products
Manufacturers are offering various “medicine disposal products” and claiming the products will render drugs safe for disposal. The DEA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and other federal agencies have not reviewed or approved any medicine disposal products and do not have any performance standards or guidelines especially for such products. Federal agencies and the Wisconsin DNR recommend using secure medicine take-back programs as the best disposal option and using trash disposal is a last resort, as described above.
- Overview of Eight Medicine Disposal Products (San Francisco Department of the Environment) [PDF, exit DNR]
Manage sharps separately
Do not put sharps in the trash! Syringes, lancets and other sharp medical items should be managed separately.
Manage chemotherapy waste carefully
Chemotherapy drugs may affect others living in your home while your body is getting rid of the drugs. Disposable items (such as gloves, adult diapers and sanitary pads) should be sealed in two plastic bags and put in the regular trash. Reusable items (such as clothes and linens that have body fluids on them) may be laundered in a washing machine but should be laundered separately from other clothes. Before washing, store these items in a plastic bag.
The American Cancer Society offers practical precautions for people who recovering at home after receiving chemotherapy treatments. Scroll down to “How can I protect myself and those I live with while I’m getting chemo?”