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Contact information
For more information on household healthcare waste, contact:
DNRMedicalWaste@Wisconsin.gov
608-266-2111

How to safely dispose of household pharmaceutical waste

Find out how, where and why to dispose of pharmaceutical waste properly in Wisconsin. Do not flush drugs down the toilet or a drain. Follow the recommendations below.

Next DOJ Drug Take-Back Day is April 29

To find Drug Take-Back Day and 24-hour collection locations, visit DOJ's Dose of Reality [exit DNR].

Dose of Reality

Waste pharmaceuticals include a wide variety of items, such as over-the-counter and prescription medications, controlled substances and sharps. These wastes come in the form of solid pills and capsules, creams, liquids and aerosols. Guidelines for properly managing these wastes differ depending on where the waste is created, handled and disposed.

Managing household pharmaceuticals

The DNR recommends that household pharmaceuticals, including pet medications, be managed as follows.

REDUCE pharmaceutical waste whenever possible

  • Buy only as much medication as you can reasonably use before its expiration date.
  • When your doctor prescribes a new medication, ask the doctor to prescribe only enough to see if the medication will work for you and in the lowest dose advisable. That way, if the medication doesn't suit you, less would go to waste.
  • Reconsider the use of products that claim to be antimicrobial or antibacterial. Plain soap and water is as effective as antibacterial soaps. The Centers for Disease Control recommends plain soap in its hand washing procedure.

For more ideas, see UW-Extension's pharmaceutical waste reduction information [exit DNR].

REUSE/RECYCLE drugs when possible

Wisconsin allows certain pharmacies to take back unit doses of drugs for cancer and chronic diseases. Certain drugs can be returned for re-issuance through the Wisconsin Drug Repository [exit DNR].

There are very few cases in which other drugs can be donated. This applies to overseas efforts as well. If you see an opportunity to do this, approach with caution and research the program well.

More information on donating medical items

DISPOSE of the remainder properly

If you have prescription medications containing narcotics or other controlled substances, contact your local police department to find out if the police will accept them. Some police departments accept non-controlled substances too, but you should find out exactly what yours will accept before dropping off the items.

When a loved one has died, arrange for proper destruction of the person's medications as soon as possible. A family member or the person responsible for the person's estate can now take the medications to a collection program or mail them to a destruction facility. DEA rules no longer allow hospice and home care staff to manage controlled substances on behalf of their deceased patients.

Use pharmaceutical drop-off sites and collection events

Whenever possible, take your unused pharmaceuticals to a collection program or event. Before going to the collection site, ask whether to bring medications in their original containers or mixed together in a small, securely sealed plastic bag. Do not bring needles and other sharp items, inhalers, chemotherapy drugs or mercury items (e.g., thermometers) to a medication collection. These items cannot be incinerated along with other medications.

If a drug collection program does not exist in your area, encourage your healthcare provider, local governments and local law enforcement agencies to develop one.

Use mail-back programs

The DEA also now allows mail-back programs for unused household medications. Ask your local pharmacy, police department or healthcare provider if they have mail-back packages for you to use or buy. Be alert for fraudulent mail-back schemes. Legitimate mail-back packages must have pre-paid postage, unique identification numbers and be pre-addressed to a location authorized by the DEA for destroying unused medications. And, when possible, avoid leaving mail-back packages in unsecured rural mailboxes.

Use caution if storing medications

When storing unused pharmaceuticals before taking or sending them to a collection point, minimize the risk of accidental poisoning, overdose or diversion (illegal use by someone other than the intended person) by storing medications out of reach of children or in a locked cabinet.

Ensure safe disposal

If you have no other options, do not flush and do not burn your unused pharmaceuticals. Instead, dispose of them in the trash. Especially when there is a risk of accidental poisoning, overdose or diversion, it is better to dispose of household pharmaceuticals than to hang onto them. When placing unused pharmaceuticals in the trash:

  • You may remove or mark over all labels that identify the materials as pharmaceuticals or that could provide personal information about you, including prescription information that someone could try to refill.
  • You may render them unattractive to children and thieves by dissolving them in a small amount of water or alcohol, or by grinding them up and mixing them with coffee grounds or kitty litter.
  • Put them in a second container or small, opaque plastic bag and hide them in your trash.

Never burn pharmaceuticals or personal care products in a burn barrel. Uncontrolled burning can create dioxins and other air pollutants.

Manage sharps separately

Do not put sharps in the trash! Syringes, lancets and other sharp medical items should be managed separately.

Manage chemotherapy waste carefully

Chemotherapy drugs may affect others living in your home while your body is getting rid of the drugs. Disposable items (such as gloves, adult diapers and sanitary pads) should be sealed in two plastic bags and put in the regular trash. Reusable items (such as clothes and linens that have body fluids on them) may be laundered in a washing machine but should be laundered separately from other clothes. Before washing, store these items in a plastic bag.

The American Cancer Society offers practical precautions for people who recovering at home after receiving chemotherapy treatments. Scroll down to “How can I protect myself and those I live with while I’m getting chemo?”

Managing other household healthcare waste

For more information on managing on healthcare wastes at home, such as bloody items and mercury thermometers, see the following links:

Last revised: Friday March 31 2017