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Collecting and Disposing of Unwanted Medicines

What to do with Unwanted or Expired Medicines

EPA encourages the public to take advantage of pharmaceutical take-back collection programs that accept prescription or over-the-counter drugs, as these programs offer a safe and environmentally-conscious way to dispose of unwanted medicines. This may be at a location such as a local law enforcement agency, retail pharmacy, hospital or clinic. To find a local law enforcement agency that is participating in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) twice a year National Prescription Drug Take Back Days, see DEA's website. To find other, more permanent  collection programs in your community, see DEA's authorized collector locator.

As a second choice, the public can utilize EPA's guidelines for household disposal of medicines (PDF) (2 pp, 194 KB, About PDF).

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Information for Organizers of Take-Back Events or Programs

EPA recommends that household pharmaceuticals collected during a take-back event or program be incinerated. EPA prefers that the collected household pharmaceuticals be sent to a permitted hazardous waste combustor, but when that is not feasible, at a minimum they should be sent to a large or small municipal waste combustor. For additional information, check out EPA's recommendation for incinerating pharmaceuticals from take-back events.

We strongly encourage law enforcement to participate in the DEA National Prescription Drug Take Back Days, because when they do, drugs are safely removed from households and ultimately destroyed while preserving local law enforcement resources. Law enforcement agencies that are interested in becoming participants in DEA’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Days should refer to DEA's website. Law enforcement may also choose to collect unwanted household drugs at other times. EPA supports these efforts and wants to ensure that they are conducted in a manner that is protective of public health and the environment. Law enforcement agencies should refer to EPA’s memorandum that describes options that comply with the EPA, DEA, and DOT or USPS regulations that law enforcement can use to transport collected household drugs to incinerators.

Frequent Questions

  • Can household pharmaceuticals collected in a kiosk be burned at a crematorium?
    No. EPA has determined that the human body should not be considered 'solid waste.' Therefore, human crematories as well as animal crematoriums are not solid waste combustion units. As a result, crematoriums are not regulated under the Clean Air Act and typically do not use air pollution control devices to limit toxic air pollutant such as mercury and dioxins and furans. Therefore, crematoriums would not provide adequate public health and environmental protection when burning collected household pharmaceuticals. If solid wastes, such as collected household pharmaceuticals, are burned in a crematorium, it would make the crematorium subject to the Clean Air Act waste incineration regulations.
  • Can household pharmaceuticals collected in a kiosk be combusted by law enforcement in a burn barrel?
    No. Open burning of residential, commercial, institutional, or industrial solid waste is prohibited under the RCRA Subtitle D regulations in 40 CFR section 257.3-7(a). Additionally, in many cases, state laws and local ordinances strictly limit or prohibit open burning of household waste.

    Because emissions from open burning are generally not controlled, open burning of pharmaceuticals from take-back events may pose health risks to law enforcement officers and members of the surrounding communities. This is due to the potential formation, release and exposure to pollutants formed as byproducts during open burning of the pharmaceuticals and their plastic, glass, multi-laminate films, and cardboard packaging. These pollutants, such as dioxins, furans, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, lead, mercury, and hexachlorobenzene may cause immediate and long-term adverse health effects such as cancer, respiratory illness and reproductive disorders. It is also possible that barrels with fans (sometimes referred to as burn barrels), may pose similar risks from emissions. Further, given the comparatively low combustion temperature, and the difficulty in controlling the combustion temperature, it is not evident that open burning or burn barrels would achieve the DEA’s non-retrievable standard for the destruction of controlled substances. See the memorandum dated September 11, 2018.

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Information for Hospitals, Pharmacies and other Businesses with Unwanted Medicines

Hospitals, pharmacies and other businesses generating pharmaceutical waste generally cannot use take-back programs or events to dispose of expired, unwanted or unused pharmaceuticals. Public collection events typically do not intend to manage waste from businesses or comply with the regulations applicable to business waste. Healthcare facilities and healthcare-related businesses that generate pharmaceutical wastes are responsible for appropriately managing their wastes in accordance with all local, state and federal environmental regulations. This includes the rules for managing hazardous wastes if the wastes generated are identified as hazardous waste.

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