Between concerns over prescription drug abuse among teens and worries over pharmaceuticals swirling in the public water supply, there’s ample cause for concern when it comes to determining the best way to get rid of leftover prescriptions. So, what should you do with them?
Some areas have pharmaceutical take-back programs that enable you to clean out the medicine cabinet without fussing over what to do with that Percocet prescription that had been hidden in the back since you got your wisdom teeth out. Last November New Jersey hosted a statewide “Operation Medicine Cabinet” initiative, for example, in which residents were encouraged to bring in leftover pills to more than 400 locations. Of course, waiting for someone to sponsor such an effort could leave you hanging on to old pills for a long time. For a perhaps more timely approach to ditching old drugs, try the pharmacy locator at disposemymeds.com, a service recently launched by the National Community Pharmacists Association to help people find better ways to get rid of leftover medication. While 800 pharmacies in 40 states are already participating, according to the L.A. Times health blog, there are still plenty of areas where people will have to find alternative solutions.
Coffee grounds and kitty litter:
If you can’t find a take-back program, don’t automatically aim to flush. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that “disposal by flushing is not recommended for the vast majority of medicines” and generally encourages people to throw their leftover meds in the garbage. (This is to minimize the amount of pharmaceuticals ending up in the water supply, but as my colleague Jeff Kluger recently pointed out for TIME, much of what ends up coursing through public water mains ends up there after a trip through our bodies first.) Still, the government doesn’t recommend tossing a half-full bottle of pills into the trash. Since 2007 the government has suggested dumping out the pills into a handy, stinky substance such as coffee grounds or kitty litter, to “hide the medicine and make it unappealing.” From there, according to guidelines (PDF) from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, you should putt the mixture into a plastic bag. Once the drug container is empty, scratch off or black out any personal information and the prescription number, seal up the container and add it to the bag as well. After all that, you can close the bag and toss it into the trash. (Or, you could potentially try to recycle the container, but as Slate.com points out, the sturdy plastic used to encase our prescriptions is seldom accepted by recyclers. If you really want to reuse, you could try donating the empty containers to animal shelters or veterinarians’ offices, Slate suggests, or coming up with your own creative use.)
When to flush:
If there are no take-back options nearby and the prescription bottle doesn’t offer any guidance regarding the best method for disposing extras, the kitty litter to garbage method is generally good—except when it comes to a few particularly potent drugs that could potentially be dangerous if taken incorrectly. For certain medications including Oxycontin, Demerol, Percocet and others, the FDA recommends flushing to get rid of the medicines “right away and help keep your family and pets safe.”