Dear Savvy Senior,
What’s the best, environmentally safe way to dispose of old and unused medications? My mother has a medicine cabinet chock-full of pills, some of which haven’t been touched in 25 years, and I’d like to clean it out for her. — Protective Daughter
Cleaning out the medicine cabinet is a chore that most people don’t think about, but it’s an important task that can help prevent medication problems, and protect children who may have access to these old, unused drugs. Here’s how you can clean out your mother’s medicine cabinet so it’s safe and useful.
Your local pharmacy, as well as hospitals, clinics, long-term-care facilities and narcotic treatment programs, might accept your mom’s unused medications, often as part of programs that collect and destroy unused drugs. Search for an authorized facility near you at DisposeMyMeds.org.
You can also drop off her unused meds at designated police departments, fire stations and other sites on National Prescription Take Back Day, which this year is Saturday. To find a collection site near you, visit TakeBackDay.dea.gov.
Use a disposal kiosk
Many Walgreens and CVS stores have free, anonymous and secure kiosks where you can dispose of any medication. Remove your personal information from the packaging and drop unwanted medication, including opioids, in the slot.
Costco, Rite Aid and CVS pharmacies sell postage-paid envelopes for customers to mail any prescription, including opioids and over-the-counter medications, to a disposal facility.
Throw them out
If mailing them in or getting to one of the drop-off sites is not an option, you can dispose of them yourself, but do so carefully. The Food and Drug Administration recommends taking the medications out of their original bottles and putting them in a sealable plastic bag with an undesirable substance like coffee grounds, dirt or kitty litter. Then seal the plastic bag and throw it in the trash. This will make the medication less appealing to children, pets or other people who may fish through your trash.
But don’t do this with dangerous drugs, such as opioids, which can be abused. For these, the FDA says flushing them down the toilet is OK. But trace amounts of drugs can end up in the water supply so this should be done only as a last resort. To see the FDA list of medications that should be flushed when they are no longer needed, go to FDA.gov and type “flush list” into the search box.
Or, another option is to purchase some medication disposal bags like the Medsaway Medication Disposal System. These are carbon pouches that are designed to neutralize all medication including narcotics, liquid medication, transdermal patches and controlled substances so you can just add water, and toss them in the trash. You can find medication disposal bags at some local pharmacies or online at Amazon.com for around $15.
You’ll also want to make sure to scratch out all your mom’s personal information on the empty medicine bottles or other packaging before throwing it away to protect her identity and privacy.
If you have other questions about proper drug disposal, talk to your pharmacist.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.