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

How to safely dispose of household pharmaceutical waste

This page will help Wisconsin households find out how, where and why to dispose of pharmaceutical waste properly, and enable those who intend to collect household drug waste to do so responsibly. Do not flush drugs down the toilet. Follow the recommendations listed in the Disposal options tab below.

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. Some residential health care facilities may qualify as households.

Disposal options

Recommended disposal options for households

The Department of Natural Resources recommends that household pharmaceuticals be managed as follows.

1. REDUCE pharmaceutical waste whenever possible.
  • Use all antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor.
  • Buy only as much as can reasonably be used before the 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 goes to waste. Do the same for your pet's medications.
  • 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].

2. 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 Cancer Drug Repository [exit DNR].
  • You may be able to donate other items; however, the circumstances where this is possible are limited. While it is a noble intention, it is very unlikely that medications from households would be acceptable for use overseas. If you see an opportunity to do this, approach with caution and research the program well.
3. DISPOSE of the remainder properly.
  • If you have 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.
  • Whenever possible, take your unused pharmaceuticals to a pharmaceutical collection program or event. The UW-Extension Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center maintains a listing of upcoming pharmaceutical collection events [exit DNR]. Pharmaceuticals are not collected at permanent household hazardous waste collection facilities due to the legal requirements.
  • If a drug collection program does not exist in your area, encourage your health care provider, local governments and local law enforcement to develop one.
    • Note: If you choose to store your waste for a pharmaceutical collection event, please 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.
  • If you have no other options, do not flush 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, be sure to:
    • 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;
    • 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; and
    • put them in a second container or small 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.
  • Do not put sharps in the trash! Syringes, lancets and other sharp medical items should be managed separately.

Legal requirements

Legal requirements for managing waste pharmaceuticals

Household pharmaceutical waste is excluded from regulation as a hazardous waste as set out in ch. NR 661, Wis. Adm. Code. [PDF exit DNR]. In general, if a household waste is managed separately by a non-household member, the exemption no longer applies. One exception to this is people collecting strictly household pharmaceuticals. The DNR has issued an enforcement discretion memo [PDF] to allow for the hazardous waste exclusion to apply in this situation.

Sharps, regardless of who generates them, must be managed separately from other wastes. For more information and a list of places that accept small amounts of sharps for disposal, see managing household medical sharps.

Non-household pharmaceutical waste may fall under the definition of one or more legal waste categories regulated by the DNR. Examples include hazardous wastes of various kinds, solid waste and infectious waste. Flushing pharmaceuticals may violate hazardous waste and wastewater rules.

Environmental impacts

Environmental impacts of waste pharmaceuticals

Pharmaceuticals and related compounds have been widely found in wastewater effluent and in surface waters and, in limited cases, groundwater. Researchers are now investigating how some pharmaceuticals and personal care products may harm aquatic life. The environmental impacts, including those listed below, are as varied as the products involved.

  • Pharmaceuticals and personal care products may contain mercury, selenium and other heavy metals which can pollute our air, land and water.
  • Other pharmaceuticals are endocrine disruptors, which have been implicated with changes in the form, reproduction and sex-ratios of aquatic life.
  • Antimicrobial agents such as triclosan may harm beneficial bacteria. Any disease-producing bacteria not killed by the products can develop into antibiotic resistant strains.
  • Burning pharmaceuticals and their containers improperly (e.g., in burn barrels, industrial boilers) can contribute to air pollution. Uncontrolled incineration doesn't destroy drug components and it can create dangerous dioxins.
  • Unused products and empty containers accumulate in our landfills. Drug components that leach out may seep into groundwater or be removed and sent to local wastewater treatment plants.
  • Inappropriate donations of pharmaceuticals may create disposal issues and other environmental problems for the recipients, particularly if the drugs are exported to other countries.

Several DNR publications address pharmaceutical disposal. Under the Waste and Material Management Program's searchable publication system, use the keyword search at the top, then choose the keyword "pharmaceuticals" and then click Find.

In addition to the environmental impacts, excess pharmaceuticals directly affect the health and safety of our families and communities. Pharmaceuticals are involved in accidental poisonings, medication errors, drug abuse and drug abuse-related crime.

Collection event organizers

Information for organizers of household pharmaceutical collection events

The DNR publication Pharmaceutical waste at non-hospital health care facilities (WA-1214) [PDF] can help organizers of collection events decide whether to accept discarded medications from nursing homes, community-based residential facilities, residential care apartment complexes, assisted living, adult family homes and hospice care providers. People managing these facilities may also wish to review this publication, to determine whether to manage their waste as household or non-household pharmaceutical waste.

The DNR publication Collecting Unwanted Household Pharmaceuticals (WA-1024) [PDF] provides guidance for organizers of household pharmaceutical collection events. The DNR and the Wisconsin Department of Justice also provide guidance for law enforcement officials in Household Pharmaceutical Waste Disposal - What Wisconsin Law Enforcement Officials Need to Know (WA-1376) [PDF].

Collection event organizers are responsible for finding funding for their collection(s). The DNR is not directly involved in organizing these events and does not have any grants available for pharmaceutical collections. The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection offers grants to local municipalities and other local government agencies to host pharmaceutical Clean Sweep events.

Last revised: Tuesday July 15 2014