Skip to main content

How to safely dispose of household pharmaceutical waste

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.

Pharmaceutical waste and the environment

Reducing or safely disposing of household pharmaceuticals protects the environment. The DNR does not recommend flushing or pouring drugs down drains. Most water treatment systems do not remove 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 through the Wisconsin Drug Repository [exit DNR].

Dispose of unused medications properly

If you have prescription drugs containing narcotics or other controlled substances, contact your local police department to find out if the police will accept them. Some departments accept non-controlled substances too, but 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 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 deceased patients.

Use pharmaceutical drop-off sites and collection events

Whenever possible, take 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

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. When possible, avoid leaving mail-back packages in unsecured rural mailboxes.

Be careful when storing medications

When storing unused medications 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 medications. 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 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 can make them unattractive to children and thieves by dissolving them in a small amount of water or alcohol, or by 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.

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.

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?”