Worldwide, landfills serve as the most common final destination for a wide range of business and consumer wastes discarded into the regular trash, including unwanted or expired medications5. Unfortunately, landfills are also one of the primary sources of contamination in ground waters and surface waters4. Once rainwater or other leaky wastes mix with the solid waste buried at landfills, a “leachate” liquid is created. When medications are disposed in the trash, they eventually contribute to this leachate, creating complex chemical cocktails that can end up in drinking water, rivers, and oceans alike, with the potential to cause serious public health and environmental issues5,7.

Some municipalities discharge leachate to wastewater treatment plants. When people flush their medications down the sewer, the ability for the local wastewater treatment plant to remove those impurities gets more difficult if leachates containing pharmaceutical substances are also mixed in1,3,8. Separate studies conducted in 2014 and 2017 have found that the number of medications, such as anti-inflammatories, beta-blockers, and antiseptics in landfill leachates is higher than is detected in municipal wastewater alone1.

Groundwater serves as a valuable renewable source of fresh, potable drinking water and is the most common source of crop irrigation for much of the United States. It is also highly vulnerable to pollution, particularly in urban areas, due to the downstream flow of municipal landfill leachates6. Contamination of aquifer groundwater fluctuates with location, seasons, and climate but is still shown to pose a risk to humans and the environment for much longer periods of time than contaminated surface waters4,7,8. Antifungal medications are particularly harmful to aquatic life near landfill groundwaters4.

Landfill leachates can also serve as reservoirs of antibiotic resistant microbes due to the presence of antibiotics discarded as municipal waste10. A 2018 study found that a diverse population of novel microbes in landfill environments show resistance to widely used antibiotics9. Human activity near these environments could lead to the transmission of multidrug resistant infections10.

Medications are among a class of substances referred to by governing bodies as “Contaminants of Emerging Concern” (CECs). Despite the mounting evidence that CECs are disrupting natural and developed habitats, federal regulations have yet to include any standards for CEC-monitoring or leachate discharge in landfills2,8. Studies of closed landfills have even shown CECs to persist in leachates 15 years after closure10.

How Can You Help?

Many state environmental departments advise against disposing of pharmaceutical waste in the septic system or the regular trash. And while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strictly prohibits businesses from flushing certain drugs classified as “hazardous waste,” it also advises both businesses and consumers alike against the flushing of generally all medications. Instead, many states and the EPA expressly endorse incineration as a best practice for the destruction of both household and business-generated pharmaceutical waste, as this method also meets the Drug Enforcement Agency’s non-retrievable standard for controlled substances.

The intense pressure and heat achieved in incineration degrade and break the chemical bonds in organic material. The inorganic debris is turned into a stabilized ash. At the same time, the organic waste is further converted into a stable non-hazardous steam, which is further cleaned and monitored through an air pollution control system to ensure the gases meet emission standards as established by the EPA as well as local and state agencies.

Any drugs collected through a drug take-back program are required to be incinerated. But, if unable to access a drug take-back program, consumers can use one of many Sharps Compliance mail-back solutions for pharmaceutical waste, all of which get incinerated at our permitted facility. The prepaid TakeAway Medication Recovery Envelopes are easy to use and ensure a quick, safe, and effective means of removal of unwanted medications from the home, community, and environment.

The TakeAway Environmental Return System (for non-controlled medications only) and the TakeAway Medication Recovery Boxes are also ideal solutions for healthcare facilities as the EPA recommends incineration as the Best Management Practice for such businesses trying to get rid drugs that may not even possess hazardous qualities.

Call Sharps today at 800.772.5657 for the compliant and responsible disposal solution specific to your needs.


[1] Clarke, Bradley O, et al. “Investigating landfill leachate as a source of trace organic pollutants”. Chemosphere 127 (2015). doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2015.02.030

[2] Dong Wu, Xing-Hua Huang, Jin-Zhao Sun, David W. Graham, and Bing Xie. Antibiotic Resistance Genes and Associated Microbial Community Conditions in Aging Landfill Systems. Environmental Science & Technology 2017 51 (21), 12859-12867 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b03797

[3] Sui Q, Zhao W, Cao X, Lu S, Qiu Z, Gu X, Yu G (2017) Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the leachates from a typical landfill reservoir of municipal solid waste in shanghai, China: occurrence and removal by a full-scale membrane bioreactor. J Hazard Mater 323(Part A):99–108

[4] Peng, X., Ou, W., Wang, C., Wang, Z., Huang, Q., Jin, J., & Tan, J. (2014). Occurrence and ecological potential of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in groundwater and reservoirs in the vicinity of municipal landfills in China. The Science of the Total Environment, 490, 889–898.

[5] Mei, Xuebing & Sui, Qian & Lyu, Shuguang & Wang, Dan & Zhao, Wentao. (2018). Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the urban river across the megacity Shanghai: Occurrence, source apportionment and a snapshot of influence of rainfall. Journal of Hazardous Materials. 359. 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2018.07.081.

[6] Aboyeji OS, Eigbokhan SF (2016) Evaluations of groundwater contamination by leachates around Olusosun open dumpsite in Lagos metropolis, Southwest Nigeria. J Environ Manag 183:333–341.

[7] Lu, M.-C., Chen, Y. Y., Chiou, M.-R., Chen, M. Y., & Fan, H.-J. (2016). Occurrence and treatment efficiency of pharmaceuticals in landfill leachates. Waste Management, 55, 257–264.

[8] Masoner, Jason & Kolpin, Dana & Furlong, Edward & Cozzarelli, Isabelle & Gray, James & Schwab, Eric. (2014). Contaminants of emerging concern in fresh leachate from landfills in the conterminous United States. Environmental science. Processes & impacts. 16. 10.1039/c4em00124a.

[9] Collins-Fairclough AM, Co R, Ellis MC, Hug LA. 2018. Widespread antibiotic, biocide, and metal resistance in microbial communities inhabiting a municipal waste environment and anthropogenically impacted river. mSphere 3:e00346-18.

[10] Yi X, Tran NH, Yin T, He Y, Gin KY-H (2017) Removal of selected PPCPs, EDCs, and antibiotic resistance genes in landfill leachate by a full-scale constructed wetlands system. Water Res 121:46–60.

Kathryn earned her Masters in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology from Texas A&M University and her Bachelor of Science from the University of Texas. She is certified in high-complexity testing by the ASCP and has been published in the journal Cancer Cytopathology. Her experience ranges from the clinical laboratory to compliance expertise in biohazardous waste management.

published in Medication DisposalTagged