April 26, 2024

What to Know About Proper Pharmaceutical Disposal Protocols

Pharmaceuticals play a crucial role in maintaining patient health and improving quality of life, yet improper disposal of unneeded or expired medications poses significant risks to the environment. As many people celebrate Earth Day and get ready to participate in National Prescription Drug Take Back Day at the end of April, it's a good time to take a deep dive into the importance of proper pharmaceutical waste disposal.

How can pharmaceutical waste contribute to environmental pollution?

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), when prescription medicines are flushed down sinks and toilets, they enter sewage waters. Because conventional wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove pharmaceuticals, medicines can leach into waterbodies, posing a greater threat to aquatic species and ecosystems.

What is the EPA Hazardous Pharmaceutical Waste Rule?

Despite several positive outcomes of pharmaceuticals, many prescribed medications go unused and may result in negative outcomes on the environment due to unsafe disposal methods. For years, healthcare providers struggled with management of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals as the pertinent rules were onerous and written with more industrial type sites in mind. In February 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its Final Rule on the management of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals. The EPA stated that the final rule “is projected to prevent the flushing of 1,644 to 2,300 tons of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals annually by banning the drain disposal (flushing, sewering) of hazardous waste pharmaceuticals.”

How does at-home care impact pharmaceutical disposal?

The rise in at-home care, influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, an aging population, and increased incidence of age-related disorders, has significantly expanded the patient base benefiting from this trend.

While offering cost-effective and efficient care comparable to hospital-based settings, this shift also brings new challenges related to pharmaceutical and medical waste disposal, as highlighted in Stericycle's 2023 Healthcare Workplace Safety Trend Report (HWSTR).

Providers and administrators acknowledge the complexities introduced by the surge in at-home care, which compound the existing difficulties in ensuring proper pharmaceutical waste disposal. According to the 2023 HWSTR, 92% of healthcare professionals believe consumers don’t know the proper way to dispose of leftover prescriptions. Additionally, almost half of those surveyed identified either pharmaceutical waste disposal management or medical waste disposal management as a challenge in at-home care settings.

There is a wide agreement among healthcare professionals that patients require additional information and resources to help navigate proper waste disposal effectively. This underscores the need for enhanced training and support for healthcare professionals to address this critical aspect of at-home care.

How can patients properly dispose of medications?

Patients have various options to safely dispose of unwanted prescriptions and over-the-counter medications through drug take-back programs. One prominent initiative is the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Held biannually—in April and October—this event provides a secure and convenient platform for discarding prescription drugs, while also raising awareness about the risks of medication abuse.

To prepare for National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, individuals are advised to:

  • Locate all medications in the household and ensure they are securely stored, away from the reach of children and pets.
  • Conduct an inventory of medications, identifying those that are unwanted or have expired dates.
  • Clearly label medications that require disposal.
  • Take the medications to a National Prescription Drug Take Back Day collection site on the designated day and during the specified hours announced by the DEA for 2024.

Additionally, beyond National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, many local retail pharmacies or hospitals offer year-round drop-off locations for medication disposal. Individuals can find the nearest drug collection location by visiting the DEA Diversion Control Division website.

Stericycle also works closely with hospitals, retail pharmacies, and other organizations to help enable the anonymous collection of unused drugs all year. In 2023, Stericycle treated 55 million pounds of pharmaceutical waste prior to disposal, helping to ensure that active pharmaceutical ingredients do not end up in waterways. Here are some ways we help take part in the disposal of unused consumer medications:

  • MedDrop™ Medication Collection Kiosks: These kiosks, available at DEA-registered hospitals and retail pharmacies, promote responsible drug collection. Stericycle ensures the incineration of collected materials, safeguarding against environmental contamination.
  • Seal&Send™ Consumer Medication Mail Envelopes: For individuals unable to access a drug take-back location, Stericycle offers Seal&Send™ Consumer Medication Mail Envelopes. These prepaid envelopes enable patients to send up to eight ounces of unused medication to Stericycle via USPS for safe incineration. Unlike drug collection kiosks, which are limited to certain DEA registrants, any organization can purchase Seal&Send™ envelopes and distribute them to patients, employees, students, and others.

Download our infographic to learn more about the adverse consequences flushing drugs can have on the environment and our drinking water. 

Get the Info Sheet

Receive Stericycle’s latest content, including news and regulations on how you can maintain business compliance.

Thank You!

We have received your request and a representative will contact you shortly to discuss your business needs.

Submission Error - Please Refresh and Try Again


Please enter a valid value


Please enter a valid value


Please enter a valid value

To find out what personal data we collect and how we use it, please visit our Privacy Policy