What To Do with Expired or Unused Medications

group of medication bottles Most of us have at least one bottle of old, expired medication in our cabinet: prescription painkillers from some dental procedure three years ago, codeine from last year’s bronchitis, or even a maintenance medication that you still take now, but in a different dose. We know we aren’t supposed to flush them. (Or are we? More on that later.) So how should we dispose of them?

Take-back programs

Sometimes you can find a drug take-back program sponsored by the federal government, a pharmacy or even the local police. These might be one day only, though, and sometimes they refuse sharps and/or controlled substances like opioids. Check online to see if anything is available in your area.

Home disposal of medications

If there’s no ‘official’ place to take your old medications, then the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that you follow these steps for most medications:

  • Take the drug out of its original container and remove or scratch out your information.
  • Mix the medication with something that people and animals find disgusting, like used coffee grounds, used kitty litter or dirt.
  • Seal the mixture in a zippered plastic bag.
  • Place the bag in your regular household trash. 

Dangerous drugs

This may surprise you, but the FDA has a list of medications that it recommends flushing down the toilet if they’re no longer needed and there’s no take-back location available. These are very dangerous drugs that could be fatal with just one dose and the FDA says that the risk to the environment from flushing is very small compared to the risk of someone finding them in the trash. You can find the full list here (updated April 2018), and it includes drugs like fentanyl, oxycodone and diazepam.


“Sharps” include needles, lancets, autoinjectors and anything else used to puncture or cut the skin for medical reasons. If you have sharps that are used, call your county health department to see if there’s a collection place near you. If not, they may have information about a mail-in program. 

If you need to put sharps in the trash, here’s what you should do:

  • Place the sharps into a hard plastic container (think laundry detergent bottle vs. soda bottle) or a metal container, like a paint can. Don’t fill the container completely.
  • Seal the container with its own lid, and then with heavy-duty tape.
  • Label the container with “Do Not Recycle.”
  • Place the container in your regular trash, not the recycle bin.