Expand Prescription Drug Take-Back and Disposal Programs

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Introductory Paragraph

Prescription drug take-back and disposal programs enhance safety, protect the environment, and decrease opportunities for drug diversion:

  • Safety is is increased by limiting the risk of accidental exposure, such as childhood poisoning. [1]
  • Environmental benefits are linked to a decrease in flushing. Proper disposal ensures that medications do not get into drinking water and watersheds. [2]
  • Reducing drug diversion limits the ability of people to misuse these medications or give them to others who may misuse them. Prescription drugs involved in overdoses are almost all originally prescribed by physicians but are used by individuals other than the patient prescribed the drugs. A majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet. [3] SAMHSA’s 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. Nearly 80 percent of heroin users reported using prescription opioids prior to heroin. [4]

Most opioid abuse prevention strategies address proper disposal, and this is a step in the right direction. However, communities have significant opportunities to expand and enhance these efforts to reach more people. This article focuses on practical ways to make improvements to existing efforts and to add new options for communities.

Key Information

The worst disposal strategy is to throw drugs in the garbage, because they can accidentally be taken by kids or pets. The best options are bringing medications to a take-back day, putting them into a drug disposal kiosk, or using one of the in-home disposal strategies discussed below.

Increasing the Number of Drug Drop-Boxes in your Community

Disposing of unneeded medications via a drug drop box is considered the best disposal option. So, it is important for communities to increase the number of drop boxes that are available and to promote awareness of them as a disposal option. In multiple cities and communities, drop boxes have resulted in increased safety and reduced the risk of opioid addiction. Boxes are often located in close proximity to law enforcement agencies, so the drugs are secure. Many pharmacies are now providing drop boxes as well.

Education Campaigns

While community efforts should target everyone, there are three special populations which typically yield the highest return on educational investment:

  • 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.
  • Nursing Homes. 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. [5] Nursing homes could be provided with information and tools (or services) for more appropriate disposal options which are better for the environment and which minimize the likelihood of diversion of these medications.
  • Hospice Programs and Funeral Homes can help family members understand how to properly handle the medications they inherit when a loved one passes away. [6] Funeral homes may distribute brochures to remind people to make sure that any prescription drugs which were being taken by a loved one are properly disposed. People in the late stages of life may have been getting prescription opioids to deal with pain, so hospice and funeral homes should be provided with disposal options.

In-Home Disposal

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) provides guidance on the safest ways of disposing of medications at home. [7] Some experts strongly recommend against flushing medications down the toilet. [8] However, the FDA recommends that certain drugs be flushed immediately, such as Fentanyl patches, Oxycontin, and Percocet, and publishes a full list of pharmaceuticals that are safe to flush. [9] While flushing is the last resort, flushing unused medications which are on the "flush list" is better than keeping them around.

There are three optimal categories of in-home disposal — deactivation powders that are poured into prescription bottles, deactivation pouches into which prescriptions can be poured, and medication mail-back envelopes. Example of vendors which provide each of these are listed in the “Available Tools and Resources” section below. All three approaches have the benefit of being a low-cost solution to disposal. Powder packets offer a level of simplicity in distribution, because they can be easily attached to prescriptions by the pharmacist. All three in-home disposal approaches are useful as give-aways in campaigns to increase awareness of medication safety. All three methods support the environment and decrease the possibility of accidental exposure or intentional misuse.

Relevant Research

The Product Stewardship Institute documents successful cases of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). [10] EPR, also known as product stewardship, describes a system where the life cycle costs of a product become part of the cost of manufacturing. EPR is a proven method to sustainably fund the recycling or disposal of a variety of products that have disposal concerns, such as paint and fluorescent lights. The following two cases show promise for a change in responsibility for pharmaceutical disposal:

  • In France, the pharmaceutical EPR collects on average over 16,000 tons per year, at a cost of just $0.0022 per box. "In a recent survey, 77% of French residents claimed to have disposed of unwanted medication via these take-back sites, while 70% said they always dispose of pharmaceuticals in this way."
  • In British Columbia the pharmaceutical industry has been funding the entire cost of their drug take-back program since 2004.

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

  • Federal. According to the Government Accountability Office, only 2.5 percent of eligible organizations are participating in take-backs. [11] The primary barrier is financial, because it costs money to maintain secure prescription drop-off container, to train staff to follow the relevant regulations, and to destroy the returned medication. A potential policy solution is to mandate opioid manufacturers to subsidize drop-off location operations and to pay patients for their returned bottles of pills.
  • State Legislation Requiring Disposal Kits be Given with Prescriptions. In 2018 Kentucky passed a bill that amended KRS 218A.170 -- requiring "a practitioner or a pharmacist to sell or distribute a nontoxic composition, which permanently captures the controlled substance, for the sequestration or deactivation and disposal of unused, unwanted, or expired controlled substances anytime a controlled substance is sold or distributed." Kentucky was the first state to pass such a bill. [12]
  • Local Drug Take-Back Programs. San Francisco and several West Coast counties have issued legislation which require drug companies to fund drug take-back programs. [13] At least a dozen other local governments around the country are considering similar legislation. [14]

Available Tools and Resources

DEA National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day Initiative

This Initiative addresses a crucial public safety and public health issue by providing an opportunity for Americans to prevent drug addiction and overdose deaths. Since September 2010, the DEA has been promoting two national take-back days each year in April and October. An ongoing inventory of success cases is documented at the DEA website. [15] Nationally, hundreds of tons are collected on each take-back day, and thousands of tons of prescription drugs have been collected. To support local Rx Take-Back Days, the DEA provides a toolkit featuring promotional materials for associated partners. [16] DEA also has variety of on-line resources and ideas on how to implement a local take-back day.

State Level Drug Take-Back Programs

A sample of exemplary state efforts are referenced below:

Medication Disposal Locators

The National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators (NADDI) provides an online resource to find locations of drop boxes, to buy boxes, apply for grants, and other information about drop boxes. [23] The DEA disposal locator matches zip code to registered collectors which will pass unused medicine on to the DEA to disposed. [24] Additional drug disposal locators are listed below:

  • American Medicine Chest Challenge [25]
  • Dispose My Meds [26]
  • National Association of Boards of Pharmacy [27]
  • Rx Drop Box [28]

The Product Stewardship Institute provides detailed guidance for expanding and improving a pharmacy-based collection program.[29]

In-Home Disposal Products

  • Deterra Drug Disposal System. Verde Technologies offers a product which deactivates prescription drugs. Each patented pouch contains a water-soluble inner pod containing 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. [30]
  • DisposeRx is a powdered blend of solidifying materials that provides a solution for the safe disposal of unwanted or expired prescription drugs. Prescription drugs can be rendered safe for disposal (and impossible to misuse) by adding water and powder from the packet directly into the pill bottle and shaking the bottle. [31]
  • Stericycle has a program "Prescription Drug Seal & Send Pouches" which provides an option for unused prescription drugs to be mailed to Stericycle in an unmarked mailing pouch. The pills are then incinerated. [32]

Promising Practices

  • Colorado. The Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention has developed a successful program for reaching people age 65+ [33]
  • Minnesota. The Mallinckrodt pharmaceutical company donated 30,000 disposal pouch systems to be distributed. [34]
  • New Jersey. The Inspira Health Network distributes the Deterra® pouch throughout their network. [35]
  • Pennsylvania has a goal of distributing Deterra® Drug Deactivation and Disposal pouches alongside 10% of all opioid prescriptions. In 2017, Attorney General Shapiro unveiled a plan to distribute 300,000 drug disposal pouches in 12 counties. [36]
  • Walmart provides DisposeRx powder packets with its pharmacy prescriptions. [37]


  1. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm
  2. http://www.takebackyourmeds.org/what-you-can-do/medicine-disposal-myths-and-facts/
  3. http://www.startribune.com/30-000-opioid-deactivation-pouches-being-distributed-in-state/394659601/
  4. Muhuri PK, Gfroerer JC, Davies MC; Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Associations of nonmedical pain reliever use and initiation of heroin use in the United States. CBHSQ Data Review. Published August 2013.
  5. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/got-old-medicine-don-t-flush-it-flna1c9478735
  6. https://www.dea.gov/press-releases/2017/05/08/dea-brings-record-amount-unused-prescription-drugs-national-prescription
  7. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/safe-disposal-medicines/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know
  8. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency https://www.pca.state.mn.us/featured/dont-flush-medicines-down-drain
  9. http://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/EnsuringSafeUseofMedicine/SafeDisposalofMedicines/ucm186187.htm#Flush_List
  10. https://productstewardship.us/4-reasons-why-epr-is-the-best-solution-for-safe-drug-disposal/
  11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/05/one-idea-for-preventing-leftover-opioids-from-fueling-opioid-abuse/
  12. https://legiscan.com/KY/bill/SB6/2018
  13. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/05/one-idea-for-preventing-leftover-opioids-from-fueling-opioid-abuse/
  14. http://www.productstewardship.us/
  15. https://www.dea.gov/takebackday
  16. https://www.dea.gov/content/partnership-toolbox
  17. https://www.artakeback.org
  18. http://stoprxabuseinga.org/
  19. http://www.in.gov/bitterpill/
  20. http://www.oregon.gov/oha/ph/HealthyEnvironments/DrinkingWater/SourceWater/Pages/takeback.aspx
  21. http://www.ddap.pa.gov/Prevention/Pages/Drug_Take_Back.aspx#.V07YY_krLcs
  22. http://www.takebackyourmeds.org/
  23. http://www.rxdrugdropbox.org/
  24. https://apps.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/pubdispsearch/spring/main?execution=e1s1
  25. http://www.americanmedicinechest.com/
  26. http://disposemymeds.org/
  27. https://nabp.pharmacy/initiatives/awarxe/drug-disposal-locator/
  28. http://rxdrugdropbox.org/
  29. https://productstewardship.us/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/160920_PSI_Pharmacy_Guide_vS.pdf
  30. https://deterrasystem.com/company/
  31. https://www.disposerx.com/products/drug-disposal-packets/
  32. https://www.stericycle.com/en-us/solutions/specialty-services/consumer-take-back-solutions
  33. https://corxconsortium.org/about/
  34. http://www.startribune.com/30-000-opioid-deactivation-pouches-being-distributed-in-state/394659601/
  35. http://www.njtvonline.org/news/video/inspira-health-network-battles-opioid-crisis-proper-drug-disposal/ Case Study]
  36. https://www.pennlive.com/news/2017/07/drug_deactivation_and_disposal.html
  37. https://www.aarp.org/health/drugs-supplements/info-2018/walmart-dispose-painkillers-fd.html