Expand Prescription Drug Take-Back and Disposal Program

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Introductory Paragraph

Most opioid abuse prevention strategies include some sort of prescription drug take-back or disposal program.  This is a step in the right direction, but most communities have significant opportunities to expand and enhance these efforts to reach more people and reduce the ability of people to misuse these medications or give them to others who may misuse them.  This objective focuses on practical ways to make improvements to existing efforts and to add new options that communities may not yet be doing. 

Key Information

Why Safe Disposal is Important

Intentional Misuse:

  • A majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet.[1]
  • SAMHSA’s 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that over 70 percent of people who used prescription pain relievers non-medically got them from friends or relatives, while approximately 5 percent got them from a drug dealer or from the Internet.
  • Getting hooked on prescription opioids is directly responsible for over 60% of subsequent heroin addictions as addicts turn to this less expensive alternative.
  • Prescription drugs involved in overdoses are almost all originally prescribed by physicians but are used by individuals other than the patient prescribed the drugs. (Get sources for this.) 

Accidental Exposure:

  • When medicines are no longer needed or have expired, it is important to properly dispose of them to reduce harm from accidental exposure or intentional misuse.[2] Throwing drugs in the garbage is a bad idea, because they can accidentally be taken by kids or pets.

Environmental Concerns:

  • Some people propose flushing or pouring unused medications down the drain, however, medications flushed into the waste stream can end up in water supplies.[3]
  • Since the drugs in take-back programs are incinerated, take-back programs are the safest way to get rid of the chemicals and to stop them from getting into drinking water and watersheds as well as in the hands of those at risk.
  • Innovative mail-back options provide a convenient way for people to have excess medications disposed of through incineration. (Details further down on this page.)

Costs and Benefits of Safe Disposal Options

This fact sheet from the Product Stewardship Institute provides a good summary of the costs and benefits of different drug take-back and disposal options. 


To Flush or Not to Flush

If no take-back programs are readily available, it is still important to dispose of the medications quickly and appropriately. Some prescriptions include instructions on how to dispose of the drug.[4] The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) provides the safest ways of disposing of these medications at home here. The FDA also recommends that certain drugs be flushed immediately, such as fentanyl patches, Oxycontin, and Percocet. A full list can be found on this page.  Other experts strongly recommend not flushing medications down the toilet.[5]

The bottom line is that the best options are bringing your medications to a take-back day, putting them into a drug disposal kiosk, or using a mail-based program to send in the medications for proper disposal.  But, if you don't have access to these options, flushing unused medications that are on the "flush list" is better than keeping them around. 

Special Populations

Senior Citizens

Senior citizens have a disproportionate number of medications in their homes. Helping seniors understand how to properly dispose of medications can make a big difference in the success of your program.  The Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention has developed a successful program for reaching people age 65+

Learn more about [1]

Nursing Homes

Individual patients aside, one study estimated the nation’s nursing homes discard anywhere from $73 million to $378 million worth of drugs a year. Some are incinerated, but many are flushed.[6]  

Nursing homes could be provided with information and tools (or services) for more appropriate disposal options that are better for the environment and that minimize the likelihood of diversion of these medications.

Hospice Programs or Funeral Home Programs

Hospice programs can help family members understand how to properly handle the medications they inherit when a loved one passes away.[7]

Funeral homes may pass out a brochure to remind people to make sure that any prescription drugs that were being taken by a loved one are properly disposed of.  People in the late stages of life may have been getting prescription opioids to deal with pain.  Hospice and funeral homes could be provided with disposal products (like Seal&Send envelopes).


Take-back Events

DEA National Drug Take-Back Day Initiative

The National Prescription Drug Take Back Day Initiative addresses a crucial public safety and public health issue by providing an opportunity for Americans to prevent drug addiction and overdose deaths. As of May 2017, the DEA has promoted 13 national take-back days, and they continue to collect more and more drugs each time. [8]

Program Successes

  • Over 4,200 law enforcement and community partners and 5,500 sites across the country.
  • Since September 2010, these events have altogether collected 8,103,363 pounds (4,052 tons) of prescription drugs.
  • The last National Take-back Day collected more than 900,386 pounds (450 tons).

To promote your local Rx Take Back Day, the DEA provides a partnership toolkit featuring promotional materials for associated partners.[9]

See available resources for more DEA take-back resources and other ideas on how to implement a local take-back day.


State Level Drug Take Back Programs

See below for inspiration and ideas to replicate from current state efforts:

Increasing the Number of Drug Drop-Boxes in your Community

Since disposing of unneeded medications via a drug drop box is considered the best option, it is important for communities to increase the number of drop boxes that are available and to promote awareness of those drop boxes. 

This How-To Guide for Drug Take-Back, created by the Product Stewardship Institute, provides detailed guidance for expanding and improving a pharmacy-based collection program. 

The NADDI prescription drug dropbox website is an important resource to find locations of drop boxes, buy boxes, apply for grants, and other information about drop boxes.

With the help of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, communities can apply for grants to receive a drop-box that will hold old opioids to prevent abuse. These boxes have resulted in multiple cities and communities being safer and reducing the risk of opioid addiction. Boxes are to be located in close proximity to law enforcement agencies, so nothing happens to them. Multiple boxes have been placed in the State of Minnesota, and after reaching out to one town in specific, Fridley, they told us that they have seen a positive response to the drop-box. They have discarded pounds of prescription opioids that came from an at-risk community.


In-Home Disposal

Medication Mail-back Envelopes

Stericycle Prescription Drug Seal&Send Pouches

Stericycle provides an option for unused prescription drugs to be mailed to them in an unmarked mailing pouch, and then the pills are incinerated. 

Learn more at: https://www.stericycleenvironmental.com/tag/pharmaceutical-takeback/ 


In-home disposal pouches & powders

Deterra Drug Disposal System 

Minneapolis-based company Verde Technologies has created a product called Deterra® System which deactivates prescription drugs.

Each patented Deterra® pouch contains a water-soluble inner pod containing MAT12® activated carbon. Once the pharmaceuticals are placed in the pouch, warm water is then added, which dissolves the inner pod releasing the activated carbon. The warm water also dissolves prescription pills, patches, and liquids, allowing them to be absorbed by the carbon, rendering them inert and non-retrievable.

For more information on how to use Deterra®, view this How-to video


  • Inexpensive - Costs $7 per pouch
  • Can encourage people to connect with law enforcement - People can pick up free (if already given to law enforcement) pouches from the station and dispose of them at home and save any potential embarrassment
  • Improve overall water quality - with the majority of people flushing unused medication down the toilet, only water treatment facilities remove less than half of the prescription drugs found in sewage


Dispose Rx is "a patented (pending) blend of solidifying materials that provides a solution for the safe disposal of unwanted or expired prescription drugs. Dedicated to environmentally friendly and safe non-toxic disposal solutions, DisposeRx is spearheading programs of educating communities with practical and safe medication disposing solutions, thus preventing the cycle of environmental pollution, addiction, overdose, and death." Prescription drugs can be rendered safe for disposal (and impossible to misuse) by adding powder from a packet directly into the pill bottle and shaking the bottle.

  • Inexpensive - Costs about $1.50 per packet (and Walmart gives the packets away free with a prescription or possibly a request)
  • Packets can be attached to prescriptions with a rubber band (much like flower fertilizer is attached to fresh-cut flowers)
  • Well-suited to campaigns with community partners (like clinics, churches, barbershops, or hair salons) to increase distribution to diverse populations.

See Tools & Resources for more information.


Relevant Research

SAFE Solutions is an ever-growing platform. Currently limited information is readily available for this section. SAFE Project is dedicated to providing communities with the most relevant and innovative materials. We will continue to regularly monitor and make updates accordingly with community input and subject matter expert collaboration. Please check back soon.

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

Legislation & Drug Companies

Currently, several West Coast counties, the city of San Francisco, and the state of Massachusetts have issued legislation that require drug companies to fund drug take-back programs.[10] On a national level, however, only 2.5 percent of eligible take-back organizations are participating, according to the Government Accountability Office. [11] The primary barrier seems to be financial: Maintaining the safe-like prescription drop-off container, training staff to follow the relevant regulations, and destroying the returned medication costs money. As a potential solution, writing a policy that mandates opioid manufacturers to pay patients for their returned bottles of pills, along with subsidizing drop-off location operators, could offset the costs and be what is needed to make returning leftover medication an automatic habit for consumers. [12]

The Product Stewardship Institute, a nonprofit that supports drug take-back programs, calculated that at least a dozen other local governments around the country are considering similar legislation, including several California counties.

In Minnesota, pharmaceutical company Mallinckrodt donated 30,000 disposal pouch systems to be distributed.[13]


State Legislation Requiring Disposal Kits be Given with Prescriptions

The Kentucky State Senate passed in March 2018 a bill that requires opioids and other abused drugs to be dispensed along with a method to permanently sequester and dispose of any leftover pills. If passed by the house and signed, it will be the first state to pass such a bill.  DisposeRx will be a popular choice to be given out along with prescription.  Other options include the Seal & Send mail-back packages or other options described below.

Available Tools and Resources

Local Disposal Drop Boxes

Finding Disposal Locations

Medication Disposal Locators

Use the following links to find drug disposal locations

Actions to Take

There are many actions that can be taken by coalitions, organizations or individuals to improve drug take-back and disposal. Explore the ideas via the following link: Potential Actions for Coalitions

Potential Actions for Individuals

Promising Practices

Current Efforts to Promote In-Home Disposal

Case Studies

The state of Pennsylvania has a goal of distributing Deterra® Drug Deactivation and Disposal pouches alongside 10% of all opioid prescriptions.

Attorney General Shapiro Unveils Plan to Distribute 300,000 Drug Disposal Pouches in 12 counties[15]

Inspira Health Network (New Jersey) distributed the Deterra® pouch throughout their network.
Case Study
These pouches render opioids ineffective for misuse and are safe for disposal and the environment, and are another cost-efficient way to safely dispose of opioids.


  1. http://www.startribune.com/30-000-opioid-deactivation-pouches-being-distributed-in-state/394659601/
  2. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm
  3. http://www.takebackyourmeds.org/what-you-can-do/medicine-disposal-myths-and-facts/
  4. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/safe-disposal-medicines/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know
  5. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency https://www.pca.state.mn.us/featured/dont-flush-medicines-down-drain
  6. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/got-old-medicine-don-t-flush-it-flna1c9478735
  7. https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2017/05/08/dea-brings-record-amount-unused-prescription-drugs-national-prescription
  8. https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2015/10/01/deas-prescription-drug-take-back-effort-big-success-0
  9. https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2015/10/01/deas-prescription-drug-take-back-effort-big-success-0
  10. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/05/one-idea-for-preventing-leftover-opioids-from-fueling-opioid-abuse/
  11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/05/one-idea-for-preventing-leftover-opioids-from-fueling-opioid-abuse/
  12. http://www.startribune.com/30-000-opioid-deactivation-pouches-being-distributed-in-state/394659601/
  13. http://www.startribune.com/30-000-opioid-deactivation-pouches-being-distributed-in-state/394659601/
  14. https://www.hometownsource.com/sun_focus/news/local/drop-off-prescription-drugs-anonymously-at-fridley-pd/article_b07bd27d-1122-55fa-8465-f47ad9a861dc.html
  15. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/safe-disposal-medicines/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know