How to safely dispose of your old medications

A handy guide to help you, yes YOU, combat the opioid epidemic.

The rising opioid epidemic has prompted a lot of folks to get a handle on their old medications. Three-quarters of all opioid abuse starts with misusing a prescription from someone else. Family members and friends (and, yes, drug dealers) can often be the original sources for an addiction. This fact has highlighted just how many prescription medications people have lying around. Many of us have medicine cabinets resembling a mini pharmacy with shelves stocked full of expired prescription drugs: Painkillers from your kid’s wisdom teeth extraction, allergy meds that did nothing, and other pills that you no longer need. Let’s face it. Potentially dangerous substances are ubiquitous in medicine and, as such, just as pervasive in our own homes.

Having all these medicines sitting around makes it easy for someone else to accidentally or intentionally abuse them, so it’s important to dispose of them promptly. Don’t be tempted to keep them around just in case you need them someday—if you do you should probably see a doctor anyway.

But for lots of people, it’s not so much that they don’t want to throw these old meds away as much as they’re just not sure how to do so. Who takes them? Do they need to go in a special container? These are important questions—and we have the answers.

First, scratch out your personal info on that bottle

If you’re throwing away a prescription bottle, whether in your own trash (emptied of pills, we hope!) or in a collection box, you should remove the identifiable info on the label. Prescriptions often have your full name, address, and phone number, along with the more obvious information about what medications you’ve been prescribed. Don’t let that fall in the wrong hands—though it’s not common, thieves can steal your identity and get fraudulent prescriptions filled in your name based on the info found on that label. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests scratching that label out thoroughly with a permanent marker, or peel off the sticker and rip it up. Much like a credit card, even if you think that data can’t be useful anymore, it’s better to be cautious.

Find the closest take-back collection site to you with a handy search

It might be surprising to learn that while a pharmacy can dispense almost all medications available on the market, they can’t always take them back. Federal regulations in America put drug take-back falls into the hands of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA partners with local pharmacies and law enforcement agencies to set up authorized collection sites. To find one near you, the government agency has set up a search function (just click here) that allows you to find the nearest DEA-authorized collection site to wherever you are. Some locations require you to purchase a special bag to contain the medicines. To avoid that element of surprise, call the site first and ask. These bags usually contain activated carbon, which binds to the drugs and renders them unusable. Often you can just take the bag home and put whatever medications you want in there.

Because of the looming opioid crisis, pharmacies like CVS have put some effort into supporting the drug take-back initiative. When contacted, CVS Health noted that they’re aiming to have 750 locations running by mid-June of this year and have donated some units to local law enforcement. That’s still a small minority of the total CVS locations—they have more than 9,600 stores—and there may not be a collection unit near you if you’re in a rural location. It’s a start, but we need more pharmacies to apply for DEA-authorization to make the task easier on the general public.

Bring your meds to a police department, especially on Saturday, April 28th

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 28th, the DEA is promoting National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Lots of pharmacies and police stations will be advertising their disposal boxes, and it’s a great time to clean out your medicine cabinet. You can search for participating locations here.

DO NOT FLUSH YOUR PILLS DOWN THE TOILET

We already have a ton of medications in our water system because we pee out plenty of drugs, prescription and otherwise. Flushing full pills down there will only make matters worse. These meds can get filtered out by water treatment plants to some degree, but many remain and get washed out into the ocean, where fish and other sea creatures absorb them. Not only is this bad for the sea life, it can mean those drugs end up back in unsuspecting people who nosh on drug-laden fishes.

There is one exception to this rule, however: The FDA deems some drugs dangerous enough that if and only if you don’t have a collection box near you, it’s safer to flush those meds than to keep them around longer. According to the FDA, 60,000 kids go to the emergency room every year because they accidentally ingested medication that wasn’t prescribed to them; of those instances, 45 percent of them involved child-resistant containers—kids are sneaky. That list includes fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone, oxycodone, and morphine, but you can find a complete version here. But remember: Look for a collection site first before resorting to the flushing method. . They are certainly dangerous, but we should still strive not to contribute to the contamination of our water if we have the ability to prevent it.

Last case scenario: Destroy the pills, then chuck ’em

Assuming that the drugs in question aren’t on the FDA list of flush-worthy pills, the FDA recommends that you make the meds as unappetizing as possible. Mix the pills up with something like dirt, cat litter, or used coffee grounds (without crushing the tablets themselves), then put the lovely milieu into a sealed plastic bag. This way if anyone does find your pills in the trash, they’ll be less likely to want take them—especially if the cat litter is used.

Congratulate yourself!

The millions of pills lying around people’s houses pose a serious threat to public health and you did something about it. It may seem small, but if we all took this seemingly tiny step we’d be one step closer to resolving the opioid crisis. Congratulations—you contributed!

Sara Chodosh

Sara Chodoshis an associate editor at PopSci where she writes about everything from vaccine hesitancy to extreme animal sex. She got her master's degree in science journalism at NYU's Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program, and is getting a second master's in data visualization from the University of Girona. Contact the author here.