According to studies, about a quarter of the 4 billion medication prescriptions Americans fill every year aren’t finished. Often it’s because patients stop taking their medicine when they feel better; other times it’s because they are no longer able or required to take them. Whatever the reason, it adds up to the equivalent of nearly 17 pill bottles per person per year.
This isn’t merely a waste of medicine. Unused medication offers a temptation and carries a serious potential for abuse; in one survey, 7 million people reported using prescription medication for non-medical reasons in the past month.
That’s why more and more people are looking for ways to dispose of unused medications. The most straightforward disposal method is in the trash, but this does little to reduce the potential for abuse. People digging through the trash can still find them, and if the bottles are thrown away with their labels still attached, patient privacy can be compromised. In the past it was common to flush old prescription medicine down the toilet, but this can contaminate the water supply. In fact, it is estimated that 40 million people in this country have been exposed to pharmaceuticals in this way. Authorities now specifically say not to dispose of medicines down the toilet for this reason.
There are alternatives, however, that are better suited to disposal. Organized collection efforts exist in some areas, where excesses of some medications can be turned over to law enforcement who will dispose of it harmlessly. Some mail-in services also exist, allowing patients to send drugs to a disposal center. It is even possible to safely throw medicine out, if it’s taken out of the bottle and mixed with used cat litter or something else unpleasant. On top of this, there are pouches available with activated carbon—the main component in commercial water filters—to neutralize the medication and render it harmless. That means it can’t be dug out of the garbage and used illicitly, and it won’t contaminate the water supply if it gets into groundwater.