Every year, Americans fill an estimated 4 billion prescriptions. Nearly one-third of that medication goes unused. Leftover painkillers, antibiotics, sleep medication and antidepressants have a way of languishing in the medicine cabinet, because once they’ve reached the end of their usable life, most people aren’t clear of the best way to dispose of them. The answer certainly isn’t flushing them down the toilet or drain. Even the best sewage treatment plants will not remove the medication from the water before it is discharged into rivers and streams. Drugs can affect wildlife both on land and in the sea, and they will eventually make their way back to humans. Hanging onto drugs indefinitely isn’t a good solution either. Old medications may not work properly after their expiration date. For those with teenagers in the house, those drugs can be awfully tempting. The educational website disposemymeds.org shares that 2,500 young adults abuse prescription medication for the first time every day. Government agencies and industry groups are making big strides toward dealing with the problem of prescription medication disposal. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has started National Prescription Drug Take Back Days designed to gather and properly dispose of unwanted medications. Working with local law enforcement agencies, each state sets up several sites where people can drop off pills. At the most recent take back event, held on April 30 of this year, more than 5,300 collection sites in all 50 states collected 188 tons of medication. Last month’s even, held on October 29, collected another 188.5 tons. The National Take Back Initiative’s website keeps a list of the takeback sites that will be available in various communities. According to Rusty Payne, spokesperson for the DEA, the prescription drugs gathered at these events are incinerated. While burning isn’t exactly the most eco-friendly activity, there aren’t a lot of other options in this case. Old drugs can’t be recycled into new ones, and destroying medications in an incinerator is certainly better than having them end up in waterways. The DEA uses incinerators that meet strict standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Environmental Protection Agency to ensure emissions are kept to a minimum. Many takeback sites also accept the plastic bottles that hold the medication. Donors should remove all personal information from the bottles before they turn them in. Most curbside programs and recycling centers won’t accept the odd prescription bottle here or there. However, the bottles can be reused as storage containers for everything from sewing supplies and screws and nails, to small hair accessories. Just don’t use the bottles to hold food or liquids, since some residual medication may hang around. Can’t wait until a takeback event? Thanks to a program supported by the National Community Pharmacists Association, some local dispensaries can accept unwanted medications. Disposemymeds.org maintains a database of participating pharmacies. It’s important to note that many cannot take controlled substances. Check with the pharmacist if you have any questions. Payne also suggests combining prescription medications with “undesirable trash,” putting it in a paper or plastic bag, and throwing it in the garbage. Someone looking to get high from old medications is unlikely to paw through used kitty litter, cooking grease or moldy leftovers from the fridge to get it. This isn’t an ideal solution — the medication can still leach into landfills, where it may eventually enter the groundwater — but it is a decent alternative. In 2010, Congress passed the Safe and Secure Drug Disposal Act, which makes it easier to dispose of controlled substances and will allow the DEA to come up with a more permanent solution for prescription medication disposal. Federal agencies are still working through the rulemaking process on the law. Until they finish, takeback days should continue to take place twice a year.
Prescription Medication Disposal Slowly Getting Easier
Medication has always been one of the more difficult things to recycle. New programs hope to promote responsible waste management and keep landfills drug-free.