Medication Graveyard: Properly Managing and Disposing of Pills

Medication Graveyard: Properly Managing and Disposing of Pills

Anyone who has wrestled with chronic pain for any length of time likely has a corresponding medicine cabinet or drawer full of medications that reflects a journey seeking relief. The longer the journey, the bigger the stockpile. How do we responsibly manage and dispose of all these drugs? Flushing isn’t safe for the environment, but keeping them isn’t safe for family or visitors.

The pill bottle pile

We all have that “drawer,” right? Almost like a graveyard, each pill bottle lies lifeless; a symbol illustrating a moment in life that once held great hope and promise.

The lifecycle of a treatment

Born out of an exciting conversation with a doctor about a new approach. As hopes rose, a life free of pain was envisioned. The script was filled and paid for. Ahhh, all of those payments for all of those hopes. As each medicine came home, a trial period commenced. Hopes were high. And then, for most of us, hopes crumbled. For one reason or another, we determined that the experiment had failed.  Perhaps the side effects were almost as bad as the condition itself. Maybe there was no improvement in our condition at all. Or the side effects or financial cost weren’t worth the minimal improvement. The bottle, only partially used, got dropped into the “drawer” with all the other failed attempts.

Why should we dispose medications?

There are many reasons to empty that drawer on a regular basis. It is important to safely and responsibly handle and dispose of unused, unwanted and/or expired medications. First, you want to be sure to keep small children from accidentally finding them. Also, there have been multiple reports of teenagers experimenting with medications belonging to their parents or grandparents without a care as to what they are ingesting. This can lead to overdose and death. Indeed, accidental poisonings and overdoses are a rising, stark and heartbreaking reality nationwide. Finally, while it may have been once an accepted and encouraged custom to flush unused medications down the toilet, we now understand the far-reaching ramifications of doing so on our drinking water and overall environment.

How to properly dispose medications

When medications expire, or it becomes clear you will never use them again, there are a few options for safely disposing of your medications:


Some pharmacies will take back unused medications. At the very least your local pharmacy can be a great resource on the topic of what’s available in your area in the way of disposing of medications. is a resource that helps to find local pharmacies in your area that dispose of medications.

Drug drop box

Many police and sheriff departments have no-ask drug drop boxes in their lobbies or attached outside of their buildings for people to drop off unwanted, unused, or expired medications. Call or check online to see if yours participate. If so, read their guidelines closely regarding how to turn in the medications (some require loose pills to be in bags, others in their original containers with names blacked out, etc).

Drug Take Back program

Organized by the Drug Enforcement Agency, October 22nd is National Drug Take Back day and offers over 5000 community collection sites nationwide. You can check this site to see plans for the day and do a search for collection sites in your area available to accept unwanted/unused medications year-round.

Other options

If none of the above options are available in your area, here is how to properly dispose of medications:

  • Take pills out of the original containers and mix with an undesirable substance, such as cat litter or used coffee grounds. For liquid medications, you may want to mix with an absorbent material such as flour or cat litter to help discourage misuse or unintentional use of the medication if it's found and opened.
  • Put the mixture into a disposable, sealable, container (Ziploc bag, or Tupperware container)
  • Place the sealed container with the mixture inside, in the trash.

What to do with pill bottles

You may be able to recycle pill bottles as long as they are empty and clean. Check your local recycling guidelines to see what’s allowed in your area. But regardless of whether or not you recycle or throw them away, be sure to conceal or remove any personal information, including Rx number, on the empty containers by covering it with a black permanent marker or duct tape, or by scratching it off.

Properly store current medications

Lastly, be sure you are careful about safely and responsibly managing medications you currently take. Keep them in a secure location, especially if you have children or grandchildren (or even visitors) in your house. I personally have teenagers at home who have friends over often. I, therefore, keep my medications locked in an old-fashioned travel train case. It’s important to remember that the medications we, as chronic pain patients, are prescribed, can be lethal to others. Therefore, a great amount of responsibility comes with managing them. Find a solution that works for you; keeps those around you safe; and, gives you peace of mind.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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