Last updated on June 9, 2021
Proper disposal of unused pharmaceuticals protects the community by keeping drugs away from our children and pets, off our streets, and out of the hands of abusers. Safe disposal also reduces the chance of drugs entering the water supply.
Because they are the safest and most reliable disposal solutions, federal agencies endorse drug take-back programs. Take-back programs include permanent DEA-compliant collection receptacles located at pharmacies, hospitals, law enforcement, long-term care communities, and others. They also include mail-back programs such as prepaid envelopes that can be filled and mailed from home and available from your city or retail pharmacy. Sharps Compliance alone has collected over 333 tons of unwanted medications with these take-back programs, keeping drugs out of communities and landfills. Law enforcement and the DEA also offer one-day events, such as the National Drug Take Back Day. The April 2018 event collected 474.5 tons of discarded medications, preventing these drugs from entering landfills and waterways.
Recently, some companies have begun offering alternate disposal options targeted at consumers and long-term care. These products promise safe disposal and claim to use proprietary processes that change the composition of drugs, rendering them chemically harmless and allowing for trash disposal. However, some dispute these claims and note that these methods do not meet the DEA’s standards for destruction of controlled substances.
Are Drug Disposal Products that Are Thrown in the Trash Safe Options?
In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that all pharmaceuticals collected through “take-back events, mail-back, and other collection programs” be disposed of via incineration rather than dumped in landfills. They stated that medical and pharmaceutical waste products mixed with household trash represent hazards to workers and the environment.
In 2017, the San Francisco Department of the Environment released an overview of “Eight Medicine Disposal Products.”
“None of the medicine disposal products are approved by the DEA, the EPA, or any federal agency, which do not evaluate or endorse such products.”
The study highlights additional safety and regulatory concerns:
- Lack of verifiable testing results. No peer-reviewed research to prove the products’ efficacy.
- Drugs not completely destroyed. Test data for some products showed that drugs could “potentially be extracted from the disposal product under mild conditions.”
- Toxic by-products. The products may produce toxic by-products as part of the destruction process.
- These products, destined for the trash, are designed for small quantities of drugs only and may not be effective on drug mixtures.
- High costs. Compared to drug take-back programs/products, these medicine disposal products are expensive, which “may make regular use by consumers unlikely.”
- No trash disposal. These products are also marketed to healthcare facilities and practitioners. Many state and local regulations do not allow the resulting mixture to be disposed of in the trash. Therefore, additional costs are incurred to have a medical waste company remove the mixture so that it may be incinerated.
- Exposure of protected health information. At least one in-home disposal product instructs consumers to mix the chemicals with their drugs right in the labeled medication bottle before placing it into the trash. Someone looking through the trash could not only identify the substance and potentially recover the drugs for misuse but also identify the person to whom the drug was prescribed.
Drug Disposal Products that Are Thrown in the Trash May Not Comply with Federal Drug Disposal Guidelines
The FDA specifically advises consumers to use a DEA-recommended medicine disposal method:
“The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in communities nationwide. Many communities also have their own drug take-back programs. Check with your local law enforcement officials to find a location near you or with the DEA to find a DEA-authorized collector in your community.”
Easily accessible take-back programs are available at neighborhood pharmacies. Many pharmacies offer permanent DEA-compliant kiosks where consumers (ultimate users) can drop off their unused drugs any time the pharmacy is open. For medication disposal right from home, ultimate users can choose the DEA-approved medication recovery mail-back envelopes.
A decade ago, mixing drugs with an unappetizing substance and placing them into the trash, or even flushing the drugs, may have been the only convenient methods available. Today, those methods should be avoided. We now have new and better solutions and the research to help understand the environmental and public health implications of drugs in our drinking water and household trash.
For more details, refer to our infographic that explains how improper disposal of pharmaceuticals affects health and safety.
Check Local Drug Disposal Regulations
While households are exempt from federal drug disposal regulations, everyone understands the importance of keeping dangerous medicines away from children, pets, and abusers. Moreover, everyone understands the importance of clean, safe water as well.
The danger of toxicity and drug diversion from improper disposal is a threat to the safety of both our communities and our environment. Consequently, local governments are implementing waste acceptance ordinances that prohibit or discourage residents from disposing of unwanted pharmaceuticals in regular household trash.
Consumers should check with their local authorities before utilizing in-home trash disposal methods for their unused or expired drugs. Some local governments already prohibit mixing pharmaceutical waste with household trash. For example, Kitsap County and Snohomish County, WA prohibit disposal of pharmaceuticals in the trash. Medication take-back kiosks have been placed throughout the county. Residents unable to travel to the kiosks can use secure mail-back envelopes.
Why Government Agencies Recommend Drug Take-Back for Your Unused Pharmaceuticals
Whether it’s permanent medication disposal kiosks, mail-back disposal envelopes, or a biannual medication take-back event, these options remove the guesswork from unused medication disposal. Unlike pouches or other chemical trash disposal options, with take-back methods, consumers don’t have to wonder if their drugs are still available for diversion or leaking and contaminating our ground water. For more information about take-back products compared to chemical trash disposal ones, click here.
When you use a drug take-back method, your drugs never end up in a landfill. They are safely incinerated, which is exactly what the EPA promotes as the safest, most effective treatment method for pharmaceuticals. In Part 2, we’ll describe the pharmaceutical incineration process and explain why it’s the preferred solution for protecting communities and the environment.