Recycling Mystery: Medication

The University of Illinois reports approximately 4,600 tons of PPCPs are discarded annually in the U.S. alone. Photo: Amanda Wills,

Whether it's a bottle of baby aspirin in a cabinet above your kitchen sink or a shelf of prescriptions on the bathroom shelf,  medication is a common household item.

In fact, a Maine Department of Environmental Protection study says the use of over-the-counter medications has risen 60 percent since the 1990s.

But what happens when you get rid of the nasty cold and no longer need that cough medicine? Should you throw it in the trash? Or can you flush it? Disposing of medication and (its containers) can be tricky. So, let's get down to the bottom of this week's recycling mystery.

Where Do I Start?

First, let's define what "pharmaceutical waste" actually encompasses. Dubbed "pharmaceuticals and personal care products as pollutants" (PPCPs) by the EPA, these products include:

The University of Illinois reports approximately 4,600 tons of PPCPs are discarded annually in the U.S. alone. Photo: Amanda Wills,

The University of Illinois reports approximately 4,600 tons of PPCPs are discarded annually in the U.S. alone. Photo: Amanda Wills,

  • Prescription and over-the counter therapeutic drugs
  • Veterinary drugs
  • Fragrances
  • Cosmetics
  • Sun-screen products
  • Diagnostic agents
  • Nutraceuticals (e.g., vitamins)

Sources of PPCPs range from pharmaceutical manufacturing and residues in hospitals to your very own medicine cabinet.

According to the EPA, some PPCPs do not pose a significant threat, however this isn't the case for all medications. Because PPCPs do not dissolve easily and don't evaporate at normal temperatures, they make their way to domestic sewers or waterways and can excrete toxic materials.

Your medication's label will denote if it can be safely flushed. If it does not, check the FDA's Web site for a list of flushable medications and the substances that can contaminate waterways.

What Can I Do With My Leftover Meds?

So, the question still remains: How do we properly dispose of harmful medications that cannot be flushed? First, contact your city or county government's household trash and recycling service to check if your community offers drug take-back programs or other household hazardous waste programs that may accept the substance.

If that is not an option, there is a proper way to dispose of the drugs at home. In February 2007, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued the first consumer guide for proper disposal of prescription drugs. Here's a quick rundown of disposing of your medications:

  1. Take prescription drugs out of original containers.
  2. Mix drugs with a substance such as cat litter or used coffee grounds.
  3. Place this mixture in a disposable container with a lid. The guide suggests an empty margarine tub or a sealable bag.
  4. Remember to conceal or remove any personal information and prescription number by covering it with permanent black marker or simply scratching it off.
  5. Put the sealed container with the mixture along with the drug containers in the trash.

Is There Another Option?

Donating your excess medication is a great way to avoid flushing medication while scoring some philanthropic points. UNICEF estimates that around 9.7 million children under the age of five die due to preventable causes and lack of basic services to treat illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and HIV/AIDS. These deaths could be preventable with some medications that could be hanging around in your bathroom.

The Health Equity Project is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to making healthcare a universal human right by providing access to quality medications to developing countries. The Health Equity Project accepts some medicinal donations such as antibiotics, anti-malarials, pain-relievers, HIV/AIDS anti-retrovirals, Diflucan and flucanazole.

Why Is It Important?

There's a lot of controversy surrounding the issue of flushing any drug. A 2008 investigation by The Associated Press found that 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals are flushed each year by hospitals and long-term care facilities.

There's a notable presence of pharmaceutical substances in our drinking water. In 2008, a CNN report found that, "A vast array of pharmaceuticals - including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones - have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans."

What does that mean for us? According to the EPA, studies have shown that pharmaceuticals are present in our nation's waterbodies, some causing ecological harm. However, to date, scientists have found no evidence of detrimental effects on human health.

According to Dr. Raanan Bloom, an environmental assessment expert for the FDA, the main way medications enter water systems is by people taking them and then naturally passing the substance through their systems.

"For those drugs for which environmental assessments have been required, there has been no indication of environmental effects due to flushing," says Bloom.

  • Chris

    I think the pharmaceutical companies should be resposible for collecting unused meds, especially from doctors offices, hospitals and long-term facilities. Ever since they have been allowed to advertise on TV, that is all you see. They make taking medicine seem so “what ever”. It is like the latest snack or something.

    Pharmaceutical companies make millions, if not billions of dollars in profits. When their sales reps go in to drop off their latest samples, maybe they should pick up unused meds to PROPERLYdispose of them.

  • Belinda

    Oh, I LIKE Chris’s idea! And doctor’s offices should accept unused meds from patients, as well, to be passed on to the sales rep. And the companies should be held legally responsible for the proper disposal, with very heavy penalties for violation.

    Except – one little caveat: who’s going to decide the proper way to dispose of them? And will that decision be flexible, in case a better way is found later, or will it require an act of Congress to change it? Something to think about…

  • Recycle Raccoon

    I know that we have started hearing a lot about product stewardship in terms of medication in our area of the country. We often direct our residents to this website to learn more about the issues, but thank you for this great article because now I will recommend this as well!

  • Ron Benge

    What can be done about “recycling” the bottles? I know this issue is complicated as the bottles offer many challenges i.e. the bottle is and HD, the cap PP, the label could be poly or paper, paper instructions with adhesives, left over product, and light weight costs in transportaion to processors.
    There must be literally millions of these bottles that are generated from pharmacies that do not even get the chance of going into residential curbside collections (?).

  • Mette Karlsen

    Excuse me? “Taking medicine is like the latest snack”? [EDITED] for that!!! You are not considering people like me who would be DEAD by the age of 18 or 20, MAX, if it weren’t for the pharmaceutical companies and their medications! There are many like me who would be dead if it weren’t for certain life-saving medications, including the ones advertised on TV. If you think Severe & Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder doesn’t kill people, you are wrong. If you think Anorexia nervosa doesn’t kill people, you are wrong. I wholeheartedly agree that medicines and their bottles should be disposed of properly, including redistribution. But DON’T bring into this discussion your anti-medication [EDITED]! Oh, and by the way–you obviously have never had a life-threatening illness. Because if you did, you would never be so stupid as to jump on the anti-medication bandwagon. You wouldn’t be able to, because you’d be way too grateful for the pharmaceutical-created medication saving your life to spew out such falsehoods.

  • Kathy Duason

    I am a 58 year old woman with many medical problems so naturally I take multiple medications. I always was told to take any ‘leftovers’ and either crush them in the garbage disposal or flush them. Now I’m totally confused. Do they always end up in the drinking water? Well, another good reason to buy a water filter.

  • Chris

    Mette, you misinterpreted what I said. I understand and know how important medications can be. I nearly died a couple times because of a rare blood disorder. However, my point was that people think they can take a pill for anything these days. They want a quick fix. Maybe people have more problems these days because meds get tossed down the drain or areas in the ocean the size of Texas are filled with trash and small bits of plastic.

    Basically, people need to take more responsibility for what they do.

  • gracie

    I’m with Ron, what do we do with medicine bottles???? I’ve asked the pharmacy, if they have a recyling program setup to reuse the bottles, and of course they said, no…so what should we do? I understand you need to take precaution if they are to be reused, but considering the amount our prescriptions cost, you would think the pharmaceutical companies would come up with something.

  • John

    Mette, for lord’s sake- take a chill pill!

  • Michelle

    Wal-Greens will take out of date medicines also to dispose of.

  • Paul Palmer

    The comments here are trivializing resource conservation by focusing entirely on “who will ACCEPT my unwanteds?” Since when does “accepting” stand for anything. You just want to be free of your responsibility for the goods that you use by throwing it away or giving it to someone else with no idea of why or what you are doing. One article talks about “accepting” hazardous waste as though that insured anything intelligent was happening to it, rather than it just being placed in a hole in the ground somewhere else. Zero Waste is a theory of the intelligent redesign of systems so that discard is designed OUT and reuse is designed IN. It is practical and useful and a hell of a lot more intelligent than all this talk about where to throw things away (flushing, kitty litter, recycling programs etc.). Let’s raise the level of thinking way over trying to find some last minute, desperate solution to problems that were designed from the start for irresponsible discard. And that does include recycling, which has become a garbage industry scam and is widely used as an excuse for the perpetual creation of lots of garbage. With all of the recycling mania that has gone on in the last thirty years, trips to the dump are still skyrocketing.

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  • Dusty

    I think this ONE….was a real eye opener..I had no idea ,.even nicotine and caffine are OUT! thank you, Really