How to Recycle Medicine and Pharmaceuticals

An Overview On Recycling Medicine and Medicine Bottles

Every spring cleaning effort leads to the discovery of old, expired medications. One look at the expiry date and you might be tempted to throw your pharmaceuticals in the trash or flush them down the toilet to protect your family from accidently consuming potentially dangerous medicines. But wait! There’s a greener way to dispose of medicines that are no longer consumable. Recycling medicines is not only better for the planet, it’s important for your long-term health, too.


Why proper disposal of medicines is important

The safe disposal of medicines is extremely important for human health and the benefit of the earth on a long-term basis. According to a 2008 survey by the Associated Press, more than 41 million Americans drink water that’s been contaminated with pharmaceuticals![1] That shouldn’t be surprising given that 52% of Americans dispose of unwanted medicines in the garbage, and 20% flush them down the toilet or sink.[2] What happens to these medications after they leave your home?

  • Community safety: Medications thrown in the garbage may potentially be discovered by children, pets, and other people who would use the inappropriately. Proper disposal of medications therefore prevents this type of inadvertent misuse of pharmaceuticals.
  • Water and soil pollution: When drugs (prescription and over the counter) are tossed into the garbage or flushed down the toilet or sink, their chemical components will enter our water supply. Though small in quantity, the impact of these drugs on wildlife in the environment and humans has yet to be determined.[3] Serious concern over the interaction of these medications is particularly high. Scientists and environmentalists have been raising concerns about the presence of pharmaceuticals in the environment for over 20 years.[4]
  • Antibiotic resistance: When drugs prescribed to fight infection enter the environment unnecessarily, the potential for drug-resistant germs becomes significantly higher, making it much more difficult for humans to protect their health from serious infections.


How to dispose of old medicines safely

There are many types of pharmaceuticals that should be recycled properly, including the following:

  • Unused and expired prescription medications
  • Any unlabeled, unknown medications
  • Expired vitamins and mineral supplements
  • Medications without proper instructions for dosing and use
  • Bottles of drugs with missing or incomplete labels

One of the best ways to avoid the problem of medication disposal is to limit the amount you generate in a given year. Here are some ways for you to reduce your collection of expired pharmaceuticals:

  • Limit purchases: Whether you need cough syrup, throat lozenges, anti-depressants, or birth control, do your best to buy only what you know you can use up before the expiry date. Buying in bulk may be cheaper at the till, but if you can’t use them up in time, they represent wasted money, resources, and a recycling hazard.
  • Use them up: When prescribed medications by your doctor, be sure to take the drug until the entire course of treatment is complete. This way you’ll be left with fewer unused medications.

Sometimes leftover medication and expired supplements can’t be avoided. In this case, the eco-friendly solution is to take them to a proper disposal site so that they stay out of our environment. These safe pharmaceutical recycling methods will put you on the right track:

  • Never flush or trash: It is important that you avoid putting medications and supplements into the trash, down your sink drain, or in the toilet.
  • Confirm expiration: If you come across a drug in your cupboard and aren’t able to ascertain whether it is expired or not, often the pharmacy that sold it to you will be able to help you out. Their computer records should indicate when the medicines were purchased and their approximate shelf-life. If they’re still good, keep them and/or use them up before they expire.
  • Donate unexpired drugs: When your medications are still usable but not needed by you, donate them to an organization that will use them to help people in developing countries. The most common medications accepted by these organizations are HIV/AIDS antiretroviral (ARV) medications, Protease Inhibitors (PIs), anti-fungals, pain relievers, anti-malarialsand antibiotics. Our recycling database has a list of charities that take donations of medicines, but you may also find that your local Department of Health has a local repository for donating pharmaceuticals (your state may have laws about the re-distribution of medicines).
  • Pharmacy recycling programs: Check with your local pharmacies to determine whether they have a drug recycling program or pharmaceutical take-back program (many do). These drugs are most often sent to a safe disposal site where they are incinerated.
  • Ask your doctor or hospital: Often medical professionals will be aware of safe drug disposal programs and would be happy to provide you the information you need to properly dispose your pharmaceuticals.
  • Hazardous waste days: Unused pharmaceuticals are considered household hazardous waste (HHW). If your community has an annual HHW collection day (often held at the local fire hall), find out if they’ll take your expired meds.
  • Municipal incineration: If your pharmacy doesn’t have a recycling program for pharmaceuticals, ask your solid waste disposal department if they have a program for incinerating drugs and medications. Often you can drop these off at the local landfill for proper disposal.
  • Start your own! If your community lacks a safe disposal program for unused medicines, then start one! This Resource for Action in Your Community for the Disposal of Unwanted Medicines will give you the tools you need to implement a project where you live.
  • Safe trashing: If you’re not able to find a medicine recycling program in your area, your last effort should be to safely dispose of your expired drugs so they can be sent to the landfill. To do so, remove the drugs from the original bottle, then package your drugs in a durable, non-breakable container along with some coffee grounds or kitty litter and seal as best as you can so that little, if any, will leak out (at least for hundreds of years).



1  Disposal of Unwanted Medicines: A Resource for Action in Your Community. (n.d.). Retrieved August 4, 2010, from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant:

2  Unwanted Household Medicines. (n.d.). Retrieved August 4, 2010, from Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation:

3  Don’t flush leftover meds — mix with kitty litter. (2007, November 5). Retrieved August 4, 2010, from

4  Proper Use and Disposal of Medication. (n.d.). Retrieved August 4, 2010, from Health Canada:

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