Throwing Unused Prescription Drugs in Trash May Be Best for Environment: Study

A new study concludes that throwing away unused prescription drugs in the trash may be the most environmentally friendly option. The study appears shortly after the Drug Enforcement Administration’s fourth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which collected 276 tons of unwanted or expired prescription medications.

The researchers compared the environmental impact of flushing medication, throwing it in the trash, and burning it. Drugs collected through take-back programs are incinerated. The study took into account how much of the drugs would enter the environment, as well as emission impacts from water treatment, transportation and burning of waste materials, NPR reports.

They found flushing allows the highest levels of drugs to enter the environment, and creates more air pollution than throwing unused drugs in the trash. Drug collecting and the burning that follows produce far greater emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants than the other two options, the researchers found. That is largely due to the travel required for people to come to drop-off points, and for the drugs to be shipped somewhere to be incinerated.

“It’s surprising to find out that even though there’s this push towards take-back, trash seems to be the best option for several different reasons,” lead author Sherri Cook of the University of Michigan, told NPR. Cook noted that when people throw their drugs out at home, they are using an infrastructure that already exists for collecting household trash.

The findings appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The Food and Drug Administration’s website explains the best ways to dispose of unused medications, including directions for throwing them away in household trash.

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    Great Lakes Clean Water Org.

    May 22, 2012 at 11:30 AM

    The study being cited is but one study with several variables,incl; waste reduction methods,distance to collection points, distance to disposal location etc. At present, the recommended method of disposal of unused/unwanted drugs is high-temperature incineration. This is recommended by the World Health Organization and many state regulatory agencies. With that said we should be separating unused/unwanted drugs from packaging which can and should be recycled. The Yellow Jug Old Drugs program operated by Great Lakes Clean Water Organization does just that at over 250 pharmacies in the Great Lakes region. When mangaged properly and efficiently the collection of unwanted/unused drugs at pharmacies and properly disposed of through high temperature incineratoration is the most environmentally responsible approach available. For Protocol on the Yellow Jug Old Drugs program in Michigan,Illinois and Wisconsin go to

    Chris Angel, President
    Volunteer Board of Dir.
    Great Lakes Clean Water Organization

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    Tony Grotrian

    May 22, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    I agree with Tricia as it has been my understanding that the purpose of take backs is to keep the drugs out of the hands of those who abuse them. It is my understanding also that water treatment plants can’t eliminate the drugs that contaminate our waters or the waters that leach out from landfills. When the human body is cremated, does that body pollute the air? I believe that controlled burning of these drugs is a viable solution, and the take back programs get more people involved by the awareness of our Nation’s drug epidemic.

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    Eleanor Dill

    May 21, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    This synposis is confusing. Many areas send their trash to an incinerator; this article seems to differentiate between incineration and household trash disposal as two different methods with different environmnetal impacts. I realize some trash is landfilled but not all.

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    Trisha DeLozier

    May 21, 2012 at 12:55 PM

    That may be the best for the environment but I’m not sure that it is the best to keep out of the hands of youth abusing prescriptions or adults who are addicted to prescription medicaitons.

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