Medical Device and Drug Disposal

Pills, patches and needles can pose unintended and potentially fatal threats if they aren’t disposed of properly. That’s why authorities created regulations for safe disposal of prescription drugs and medical devices.

medical devices on operating tray

All expired, unwanted or unused drugs and devices, including prescription pills, liquids, patches and over-the-counter medicines, inhalers and injectable products, should be disposed of as quickly and securely as possible. The goal is to help reduce the chance of accidental or intentional exposure.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration provide guidelines and regulations for safe disposal of all unused medicines and potentially dangerous devices, such as syringes used to administer certain medicines.

The rules are intended to prevent:
  • Harm to children, pets and others
  • Accidental overdose
  • Medicine cabinet mix-ups
  • Abuse or misuse, especially by teens and young adults
  • Harm to the environment, especially when disposed of improperly (i.e. pouring certain liquid medicines down the drain)
Medical device disposal

Drug Disposal Sites and Events

The DEA works with local governments and private entities to provide safe drug disposal opportunities for the public. You can find DEA-authorized collectors online.

Local governments and law enforcement agencies also participate in drug-disposal events. More than 4,200 local governments across the country participated in the DEA’s last National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in November.

Did You Know
Consumers got rid of a record 912,305 pounds of unwanted pills during National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in November 2017.

The public dropped off a record 456 tons of medications at 5,300 collection sites. That marked a six-ton increase from the previous drug-disposal event earlier in 2017.

If a patient has questions regarding the safe disposal of a medication or device, they should contact their pharmacist. Local health departments can also assist with instructions for disposal or the retrieval of sharps disposal containers. The local waste management service may be able to answer questions about whether certain drugs or devices can be disposed of in a person’s household trash.

Household trash disposal

Steps for Household Trash Disposal

Most medicines, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs, pills, liquids, creams, etc., can be thrown into the household trash, unless otherwise instructed on the label. To properly throw away used or expired medications in the kitchen or bathroom garbage cans, there are a few steps people should take:

Step 1
Mix any leftover medicines with an inedible substance such as dirt, kitty litter or used coffee grounds. The point is to make the mixture unappealing to both children and animals.
Step 2
Place the mixture in closed container, such as a sealable plastic bag.
Step 3
Throw the container with the mixture into the household trash.
Step 4
Use a permanent marker to black out all personal information on prescription labels of empty pill bottles or other medicine packaging. Then discard the materials.

Disposing of Inhaler Products

Inhalers and other aerosol products can pose an environmental concern if they are punctured or thrown into a fire or incinerator during disposal.

Inhalers are portable devices that administer a type of drug that is to be breathed in. These products are often used by patients who have asthma or other breathing problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Various inhalant devices
Common inhalers include:
  • Short-acting bronchodilators, such as albuterol (brand names Proventil, Ventolin and Xopenex)
  • Long-acting beta agonists (brand names Advair and Serevent)
  • Inhaled steroids (brand names Flovent and Qvar)

When disposing of inhalers, people should read instructions on the labeling and follow local regulations and laws regarding the disposal of aerosol products. Most inhalers can be safely thrown into the household trash or recycled.

Disposing of Injectable Products

Unused or expired injectable products, such as those used to take insulin for diabetic patients, can be safely disposed of using a sharps disposal container. If a person needs assistance obtaining such a container, contacting your pharmacist that dispensed the injectable medicine is a good place to start.

illustrations of injectables and vials
Injectable products include:
  • Needles and pen needles
  • Syringes
  • Auto injectors and pens (pre-filled devices)
  • Vials containing an injectable product

Short-, rapid-, intermediate- and long-acting insulin medicines, including Humulin, NovoLog, FlexPen, Novolin, Levemir, Lantus and Tresiba, are all injectable products that require safe disposal via a sharps disposal container.

Other injectable products may include:
  • Fertility drugs (follicle stimulating hormone – FSH, Pergonal, Metrodin, Pregnyl, Novarel, Lupron, Synarel and Antagon)
  • Antibiotics (Apo-ampi)
  • Allergy medicines (Dimetapp – brompheniramine maleate)
  • Anti-anxiety medicines (Ativan – lorazepam and Librium – chlordiazepoide)
  • Antipsychotics (Thorazine – chlorpromazine)
  • Testosterone (Testopel, Depo-Testosterone and Aveed)

Sharps Disposal Containers

Sharps waste container
A sharps container is designed for disposal of sharps waste

Sharps disposal containers should only be filled about three-quarters full before the container is disposed of. Sharps containers should never be overfilled. All injectable products should be safely and securely out-of-sight and out of immediate reach in a sharps disposal container.

Sharps disposal guidelines may vary depending on where a person lives. Patients should follow local guidelines regarding the safe disposal of sharps containers.

Whenever possible, a patient should attempt to secure a sharps disposal container with a mail-back box, which allows for injectable products to be returned after use to a company for disposal.

People can check with their local trash removal service or health department to learn about safe methods for disposal of sharps containers where they live.

flushing prescription pills

Flushing Drugs

Some medicines can be especially harmful — in some cases, fatal — to others. To prevent accidental exposure or ingestion of these substances by children, pets or others, you should dispose of these medications immediately and responsibly when no longer needed.

Although some drug labels recommend flushing, counties in every state across the country offer safe disposal of medications. To ensure the safety of your family and pets, always keep medications out of reach in a locked medicine cabinet until you are ready to dispose of them at a local drug take-back event or at your pharmacy, hospital or health department.

Never flush medications down the toilet or sink.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.

Kristin Compton
Written By Kristin Compton Writer

Kristin Compton's background is in legal studies. She worked as a paralegal before joining Drugwatch as a writer and researcher. She was also a member of the National Association of Legal Assistants. A mother and longtime patient, she has firsthand experience of the harmful effects prescription drugs can have on women and their children. Some of her qualifications include:

  • Bachelor of Arts in Legal Studies | Pre-Law from University of West Florida
  • Past employment with The Health Law Firm and Kerrigan, Estess, Rankin, McLeod & Thompson LLC
  • Personal experience battling severe food allergies, asthma and high-risk pregnancies
Edited By
Kevin Connolly
Kevin Connolly Managing Editor

11 Cited Research Articles

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  2. Partners Asthma Center. (2010). Long-Acting Beta-Agonist Bronchodilators. Retrieved from http://www.asthma.partners.org/NewFiles/BetaAgonist.html
  3. Throckmorton, D.C. (2016, April 25). National Drug Take Back Day: A Great Time to Dispose of Prescription Medications Cluttering Your Cabinets. Retrieved from: https://blogs.fda.gov/fdavoice/index.php/2016/04/national-drug-take-back-day-a-great-time-to-dispose-of-prescription-medications-cluttering-your-cabinets/
  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2015, April 8). Drug Treatments for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease that Do Not Use Chlorofluorocarbons. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/DrugSafety/InformationbyDrugClass/ucm082370.htm
  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016 May 9). Transition from CFC Propelled Albuterol Inhalers to HFA Propelled Albuterol Inhalers: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/QuestionsAnswers/ucm077808.htm#Why_are_albuterol_CFC_inhalers_being_phased_out
  6. U.S.Food and Drug Administration. (2017, October 6). Flushing of Certain Medicines. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/drugs/resourcesforyou/consumers/buyingusingmedicinesafely/ensuringsafeuseofmedicine/safedisposalofmedicines/ucm186187.htm
  7. U.S.Food and Drug Administration. (2017, December 30). Fentanyl Patch Can Be Deadly to Children. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm300803.htm
  8. U.S.Food and Drug Administration. (2017, December 5). Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm101653.htm
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  10. Vanderbilt Health. (2016, January). How to Throw Away Old Medicines and Injectable Products. Retrieved from: http://www.mc.vanderbilt.edu/documents/vanderbiltpharmacy/files/Disposing%20of%20Medications%20and%20Injectables.pdf
  11. Sharps Container by William Rafti of the William Rafti Institute. [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASharps_Container.jpg
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