Disposal for Prescription Drugs

Last updated on April 13, 2021

Americans are taking more and more prescription drugs, both legally and illegally, and communities across the country are struggling to deal with the health, financial, and environmental effects. A particular hot-button issue is the safe disposal of expired and unwanted medication. Currently, stakeholders including pharmaceutical manufacturers, product stewardship organizations, federal, state, and local governments, individual pharmacies, and other healthcare entities are working to develop solutions. Medical waste disposal companies who are also reverse distributors like Sharps Compliance are playing a major role to assist these groups in the proper containment, transport, and destruction of unused pharmaceuticals.

Prescription Drug Addiction Is an Epidemic

While the cost of collection may seem high, so does the cost of doing nothing. Millions of Americans abuse prescription drugs.  Thousands die every year from overdoses. Between 2000 and 2015, more people died from overdoses of commonly prescribed opioids than from heroin. In 2010, one in 20 people aged 12 and over reported that they used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes.

In addition to the cost of life, there are increased community costs including additional law enforcement as well as increased demands on the health and foster care systems. People with substance abuse problems are often less productive at work/school and suffer both mentally and physically. The effects ripple throughout entire families and communities.

Health and Environmental Hazards of Improper Drug Disposal

Besides the personal and social costs of addiction, there are also environmental concerns.  At this point, there is uncertainty about the effects of low-level drug contamination in the water supply, but levels are rising along with the increased use of prescription medications due not only to excretion, but from community residents flushing medications.  Moreover, waste water treatment plants are only able to remove approximately half the prescription drugs contained in sewage.

Prescription Drug Disposal Solutions

Drug manufacturers also recognize the problems caused by improper disposal and are taking independent action. In 2014, the nation’s largest industry trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, launched an informational website, My Old Meds, to educate consumers about the importance of safe storage and disposal.

Counties and cities across the country are passing extended producer responsibility laws for pharmaceuticals. While local governments consider mandatory take-back programs, there’s also the possibility of federal regulation. Although a federal standard for collection and disposal of unwanted and expired pharmaceuticals would impose more order and certainty, Congress is unlikely to act on the proposal anytime soon.

Many individual communities sponsor regular Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) National Drug Take-Back Days, but publicizing and collecting from individual households is logistically difficult. The DEA, in response to the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010, amended the Controlled Substances Act to provide extended collection options in 2014. This rule update allows retail pharmacies, manufacturers, drug distributors, reverse distributors, narcotic treatment programs, long-term care facilities, and hospitals/clinics with on-site pharmacies to set up drop-off kiosks or provide mailback systems for the collection of unused drugs, including controlled substances, from residents. Previously, only law enforcement personnel were allowed to collect controlled substances.

Medical waste disposal companies that are reverse distributors are responding. For instance, Sharps Compliance offers secure, affordable drug collection kiosks and has collected and disposed of over 1.7 million pounds of unused medications over the last five years. Sharps offers two DEA-compliant options:

  1. MedSafe Medication Disposal System: This powder-coated steel, DEA-compliant medication collection kiosk is available at DEA-authorized locations for disposal of ultimate user controlled and non-controlled drugs. It comes with serialized, pre-addressed, prepaid, leak-proof cardboard inner liners. Since the liners are shipped via common carrier, they are only removed once full – making this option very efficient and cost-effective. The liner is shipped to Sharps’ DEA-approved facility for destruction.
  2. Takeaway Medication Recovery Systems: Designed to allow safe disposal of ultimate user drugs, the Takeaway Systems consist of mailback envelopes for small quantities of an individual’s medications or specially designed boxes for larger quantities, such as hospice care. Unused drugs are placed in the prepaid, pre-addressed envelope by the ultimate user or long-term care provider prior to mailing directly to Sharps’ DEA-approved facility with on-site destruction.

Sharps Compliance’s all-in-one collection, transport, and destruction MedSafe and Takeaway Medication Recovery Systems are an immediate answer to the growing demands for increased accountability and assistance for consumers in the effort to keep their families, environment, and communities safe.


Wanda Voigt holds a BA in Nursing from Texas Woman’s University and a BBA in Business Management from Texas A&M University. In Fall 2021, Wanda will begin her Master Jurisprudence in Health Law and Policy at Texas A&M University. Wanda has over 20 years of clinical practice in both hospital and private practice practicing in various specialties.

As the Director of Regulatory Compliance, Wanda assists Sharps’ customers in evaluating current federal and state-specific medical and pharmaceutical waste regulations, implementing compliant regulated medical and pharmaceutical waste management programs and processes, and developing training programs for both internal and external customers.

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