How to dispose of expired medicine
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How to Properly Dispose of Old Medication, to Keep Everyone Safe

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Jul. 29 2021, Published 11:22 a.m. ET

Like most people, your medicine cabinet is likely chock-full of expired cold medicine, ointments, and prescription drugs — and while it’s easy enough to toss the majority of these expired meds into a garbage bag disposing of medications in this way can have serious ramifications, especially in the case of narcotics or opioids. Luckily, understanding how to safely dispose of expired medication can save you and the public a lot of trouble down the line.

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Man looking in medicine cabinet
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Can I flush them down the toilet?

There is an assumption that the safest and easiest way to get rid of medications is to simply flush them down the sink or the toilet. Although this option works for the vast majority of expired drugs, not every medication should be flushed. Still, according to the FDA, there have been no reported incidents of flushed drugs causing any sort of environmental effect.

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In addition, the FDA asserts that any drugs that do enter the water table, do so after being only after they have been naturally metabolized by the human body. These miniscule compounds might enter water treatment plants, but they rarely, if ever, have any effect on the general population. To find out which drugs are safe to flush, check out the FDA Flush List.

Prescription medication
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Try a take-back program.

In 2010, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) initiated a drug take-back program allowing citizens to safely dispose of expired medication. Each year, the DEA holds two National Prescription Drug Take-Back Days, where people can stop by pre-approved sites nationwide to dispose of their expired prescriptions. This is likely the safest, most responsible method for disposal.

At the same time, according to the FDA, many communities have their own drug take-back programs. To find out if your community has one, contact your local law enforcement agency or municipality. You could also contact the Diversion Control Division to find out which collectors are in your area by just entering a few bits of information.

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Pile of assorted pills
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Can I toss them in the trash?

If your medicine isn't "flushable" and you don’t have a take-back program in your area, you can throw your expired medicine in the trash — as long as certain conditions are met. According to Vital Record, the first step to throwing away meds is to mix them together and combine them with a foul-tasting trash element like cat litter or coffee grounds. This will prevent pets, children, or wild animals from accidentally ingesting them.

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Next, put the gross assemblage into a sealable container like a resealable plastic bag or a used coffee can. This can be disposed with your household trash, and pill bottles can be returned to the doctor or pharmacy. You can also remove the labels and put them in with plastic recycling — just remember to check with the local recycling program first.

According to Vital Record, unique medication deactivation bags are designed to render medicines ineffective while also being environmentally friendly. They are available at local drugstores, online stores, and mail-order pharmacies upon request, and several drug coalitions will provide them for free as well.

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