Prescription Drug Take Back Day: Dos and Don'ts

Guidelines for drug disposal and locations of drop off centers.

Every year the Drug Enforcement Agency, in cooperation with local police, sheriff departments, and other agencies, organize a "take-back" prescription drug day. This year (April 27, 2019) will be the day to bring in your unused or expired medications for proper disposal to a collection site near you. 

Like spring cleaning, this is an excellent way to clean out the medicine cabinet. This is especially important if you have an old prescription of opioids, benzodiazepines, or other highly addictive medications in your home. Studies have shown that most addicts obtain their medications from a friend or family members, especially by searching through medicine cabinets.

If you can not make the take-back day, the FDA provides guidelines for safely disposing of your medications, including opioids.

FDA provides guidelines for proper disposal of unwanted or unused medications.

The following guidelines were developed by the FDA to encourage the proper disposal of medicines and help reduce harm from accidental exposure or intentional misuse after they are no longer needed:

  • Follow any specific disposal instructions on the prescription drug labeling or patient information that accompanies the medicine. Do not flush medicines down the sink or toilet unless this information specifically instructs you to do so.
  • Take advantage of programs that allow the public to take unused drugs to a central location for proper disposal. Call your local law enforcement agencies to see if they sponsor medicine take-back programs in your community. Contact your city’s or county government’s household trash and recycling service to learn about medication disposal options and guidelines for your area.
  • Transfer unused medicines to collectors registered with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Authorized sites may be retail, hospital or clinic pharmacies, and law enforcement locations. Some offer mail-back programs or collection receptacles (“drop-boxes”). Visit the DEA’s website or call 1-800-882-9539 for more information and to find an authorized collector in your community.

If no disposal instructions are given on the prescription drug labeling and no take-back program is available in your area, throw the drugs in the household trash following these steps:

  1. Remove them from their original containers and mix them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds, dirt or kitty litter (this makes the drug less appealing to children and pets, and unrecognizable to people who may intentionally go through the trash seeking drugs).
  2. Place the mixture in a sealable bag, empty can or another container to prevent the drug from leaking or breaking out of a garbage bag.

Ilisa Bernstein, PharmD, JD, Deputy Director of FDA's Office of Compliance, offered a few more tips:

  • Scratch out all identifying information on the prescription label to make it unreadable. This will help protect your identity and the privacy of your personal health information.
  • Do not give your medicine to friends. Doctors prescribe medicines based on your specific symptoms and medical history. Something that works for you could be dangerous for someone else.
  • When in doubt about proper disposal, ask your pharmacist.

Dr. Bernstein says the same disposal methods for prescription drugs could apply to over-the-counter drugs as well.

Why the Precautions?

Some prescription drugs, such as opioid pain relievers and other controlled substances, carry instructions for flushing to reduce the danger of unintentional use or overdose and illegal abuse.

For example, the fentanyl patch, an adhesive patch, comes with instructions to flush used or leftover patches. Even though the patch has been worn by the patient, some drug remains and can cause severe breathing problems. Accidental exposures to used patches have lead to fatalities among small children, pets and even adults, especially those who have not been prescribed the medicine.

Environmental Concerns

Some people are questioning the practice of flushing certain medicines because of concerns about trace levels of drug residues found in surface water, such as rivers and lakes, and in some community drinking water supplies.

“The main way drug residues enter water systems is by people taking medicines and then naturally passing them through their bodies,” says Raanan Bloom, PhD, an environmental assessment expert at FDA. “Many drugs are not completely absorbed or metabolized by the body and can enter the environment after passing through wastewater treatment plants.”

“While FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency take the concerns of flushing certain medicines in the environment seriously, there has been no indication of environmental effects due to flushing,” Dr. Bloom says.

FDA reviewed drug labels to identify products with disposal directions recommending flushing down the sink or toilet. This continuously updated listing can be found at FDA’s webpage on Disposal of Unused Medicines. Read more about leftover meds in our Smart Patient's Guide to Chronic Pain.


Updated on: 04/23/19
Continue Reading:
What to Do – and Not Do – with Leftover Opioid Meds