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How to Dispose of Old Medications

For years, we all got rid of old medication by just throwing it in the trash. Then it turned out that addicts went through trash looking for medications, and kids or animals could get hold of old drugs without even realizing they shouldn’t touch them.

We were advised to flush old medication down the toilet instead. But then drugs started showing up in tap water which people were drinking and farms were using to irrigate the land where they grew food or fed livestock.

So how are you supposed to handle medication disposal?

Pills spilling out of a prescription bottle

There’s no perfect solution

Unfortunately, no one has a really good answer. The FDA recommends taking it to a “medicine take-back program” or DEA-authorized collectors, but those are not available everywhere. I’ve never found one near me. Failing that, they suggest putting it in the trash… but of course it’s not that simple.

Medication Disposal Methods

Mix it with something nasty and throw away

The FDA recommends first mixing most old medication with something icky, and then putting it in a container and throwing it away. For example, you’d mix the pills with coffee grounds or kitty litter, put it all in a Ziploc, and throw that away. As for old empty pill bottles, they just recommend scratching out the personal information until it’s unreadable and tossing it.

Except controlled substances

The exceptions to the above rule are on this list. It’s not considered safe to dispose of certain controlled substances in the trash. The concern is mainly for children and pets getting hold of the medications. It’s recommended that you flush these medications down the toilet, even though that does put traces of medication into the water supply. They say it’s minimal.

Never, ever recycle, unless…

However you dispose of old medications and their packaging, don’t put it in your recycling bin unless your area specifically instructs you to do that. If you can find someone locally who reuses old prescription bottles for charity, that gives you a way to get rid of the bottles. But recycling facilities rarely are prepared to deal with old medication or old bottles. In some areas, even when the prescription bottles say they’re recyclable, it’s actually illegal to recycle them.


Don’t ever toss old medications into a burn barrel for disposal. While burning can be a great method of medication disposal, it can also release dangerous toxic fumes. It needs to be done by waste disposal professionals. And in most areas, regulations mean you can’t burn trash at home anyway.

Sweden burns its trash to provide electricity. They’ve gotten rid of landfills, greatly reduced their use of fossil fuels…the only problem was, they didn’t have enough trash to fuel the country. So they started importing it from other countries, which I imagine were happy to be rid of it. Maybe someday this will be the norm.