pharmaceutical waste

Last updated on May 2, 2022

With so many pharmaceuticals, it can be difficult to know how to dispose of them all properly.  This post will explore the differences between and proper disposal for over-the-counter medicines, controlled substances, non-controlled medications, and hazardous waste pharmaceuticals.

Disposal into the trash or down the sink can lead to contamination of our environment. Leaving unused drugs in the home or in a provider’s cabinet can result in misuse and diversion. Drugs also cannot be placed into a medical waste or sharps container. Local, state, and federal agencies determine the proper methods for disposal of drugs based on if they are generated by a consumer or a provider.

Over-the-Counter Drug Waste

Over-the-counter medications, such as those used to control headaches, allergies, and colds, can be purchased without a prescription. However, you must still handle and dispose of these medicines properly as they can contaminate our waters if dropped down the toilet or sink. If placed into the trash, they can contaminate landfills and runoff.

Even over-the-counters drugs can cause illness or injury if misused by children and even adults.  Consumers can dispose of these drugs along with other medications through methods such as a mailback envelope or drop-off receptacle.

Non-Controlled/Non-Hazardous Prescription Drug Waste

Non-controlled/non-hazardous prescription medications1 include those used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, and bacterial infections.  These drugs can also contaminate our waters and landfills. They can be very dangerous if taken by those for whom they are not prescribed.

In some states, it is against state regulations for providers to place these drugs into the trash. These drugs can be sent for disposal at a medical waste incinerator.

Controlled Drug Waste

Controlled substances are categorized into five schedules “depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential.”2 Schedule I substances, such as heroin and ecstasy, have no accepted medical use and are easily abused. Schedules II are prescription drugs that are most likely abused, such as hydrocodone. Schedule V medications are the least likely to be abused of the controlled substances. They consist of very limited amounts of narcotics, e.g., Robitussin AC and Lyrica.

Controlled drug waste must be managed according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).  Inventory controlled drugs can only be disposed of through special measures such as a reverse distributor.

Prescribed controlled drugs can only be disposed of by the person to whom they are prescribed. Consumers can either obtain a DEA-compliant mailback envelope from organizations, such as their pharmacy or dispose of their drugs into a DEA-compliant disposal receptacle located at a hospital, pharmacy, or police station.

Hazardous Drug Waste

In 1976 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). RCRA is the federal law that governs the disposal of hazardous wastes by businesses. An estimated 5%-10% of pharmaceuticals are classified as hazardous wastes when discarded.

These drugs are regulated if you are a provider and therefore, must be disposed of as hazardous waste. Consumers can dispose of these drugs, along with their over-the-counter, prescription, controlled, and hazardous drugs in a DEA-compliant mailback envelope or collection receptacle.

To comply with regulations, keep our environment healthy, and reduce the misuse of unused drugs, Sharps Compliance provides both consumers and providers pharmaceutical waste disposal solutions for all types of drugs.

1 Non-Controlled Substances

1 Drug Scheduling

Jan Harris holds a masters degree in Occupational Health and Safety Management and is an authorized OSHA outreach trainer. She has worked as a consultant focusing on OSHA and medical waste compliance since 1990, and for Sharps Compliance since 1999.

published in Medication Disposal