Do you have expired or partially used prescription medications in your medicine chest, in the back of your kitchen cabinet or stashed in a drawer? Many people keep old pills for years with the best intentions. We want to get rid of them, but often don’t know how to dispose of them properly. We’re concerned about accidentally allowing the medications to get in the wrong hands or taint the environment and simply let them stack up for years.

“It’s important to quit taking expired medications and get rid of them safely as soon as you can,” says Josh Goldman, Opioid and Substance Abuse Health Educator, Yavapai County Community Health Services. “Expired meds tend to lose their potency, so in essence, you’ll no longer have the benefits of the medication you were prescribed in the first place. Some medications are even susceptible to bacterial growth.”

Medications that tend to lose their potency quickly include liquid antibiotics and compounded medications, which are medications made from a personalized formulation, ordered specifically for you by your doctor.

There is also the real risk of the unused drugs getting in the wrong hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 60,000 children under the age of 5 are seen in emergency rooms each year for accidental medication overdose.

And it is never advisable to give unused prescription medications to a friend or family member. Saving a trip to the doctor or saving money is not worth the health risk.

So, what is the best way to get rid of old medications? Goldman says there are several easy and safe options:

Deterra Deactivation Pouches

Deterra Pouches are a relatively new option for safe drug disposal at home. These sealable pouches contain activated carbon, which renders the drug inert. Simply place your pills, patches or liquid medication in the pouch, fill with warm tap water and waits 30 seconds. Seal and gently shake the pouch and place it in the trash. Deterra Pouches are available for purchase at outlets such as Walmart and Amazon.


Some pharmacies are now offering DisposeRx packets with every prescription free of charge, to facilitate at-home drug disposal. To use, pour the contents of the DisposeRx packet directly into the pill bottle, add warm water, seal and shake the bottle for 30 seconds. Remove the label from your pill bottle or black out the information with a marker. The bottle can now be safely discarded in the trash. DisposeRx is also available at the Yavapai County Community Health Services office at 1090 Commerce Drive in Prescott.

Another Option for Safe Disposal at Home

If you have no other option for home disposal, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommend putting expired medications in the trash after following these steps:

  1. Remove the pills or liquid from the original container and mix them with dirt, used coffee grounds, kitty litter or sawdust.
  2. Put the mixture in a Ziploc bag or similar, seal it tightly and put it in the regular trash.
  3. Remove or black out the label on the original container with a marker and dispose of the container separately.

Remember that this method makes the drug undesirable, but will not render the drug inactive.

Drop Boxes

Local law enforcement agencies and some Yavapai College campuses offer free drug drop box locations throughout Yavapai County that will accept medications for safe disposal. Be aware that each location has different parameters regarding what types of medication they will accept. For instance, some drop boxes may not accept sharps, needles, aerosol cans or inhalers. Click here for a complete list of Yavapai County drop box locations, contact information, requirements, and what medications are accepted at each.

In addition, pharmacies such as Walgreens Pharmacy at 2880 N. Centre Court in Prescott Valley offer drug disposal kiosks, similar to dropping mail into a mailbox.

Medicine Take-Back Events

Drug take-back events are held twice a year in Yavapai County, according to MatForce Executive Director Merilee Fowler. The effort continues to grow.

“The Dump the Drugs National Take Back Day takes place the last weekend of April and October,” says Fowler. “We partner with local law enforcement agencies and the Drug Enforcement Agency to provide easy, accessible drop off locations to the general public. Since 2008, we have collected more than 32,400 pounds of drugs for safe disposal.”

 Is Flushing Safe?

According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), prescription and nonprescription drugs can be found at trace levels in treated wastewater discharged from sewage treatment plants. We now know that some of these substances can be harmful to our environment. ADEQ recommends alternative means of disposal whenever possible. Click here for more information.

However, the FDA regularly updates a list of prescription medications that have been approved for flushing down the toilet if no other option exists. The known risk of harm, including death, from these substances from accidental exposure outweighs potential risks from flushing them. The list includes medications such as fentanyl, oxycodone and morphine. Click here for the full list.

What About Medical Sharps?

“The best practice for sharps such as needles, syringes and lancets is to place them in a sturdy, puncture-proof container with a tight lid and tape it shut, “ says Goldman, “You can purchase a specially designed container from a pharmacy, or you can use a heavy plastic or metal container that has a secure lid, such as a liquid laundry detergent bottle.”

According to ADEQ, do not use glass containers, and make sure the container is not overstuffed. Mark the container “Do Not Recycle” so that it goes to the landfill rather than a recycle center.

While your container is in the process of being filled for disposal, make sure you keep it sealed and out of the way of children and pets.

Getting rid of your old, unused medications can be safe and easy. Following these recommendations now can make your home safer in the long run by reducing the risk of accidental drug exposure. And you’ll be assured that you’re following the right precautions to keep our environment safe.

For more information on safe medication disposal, or to find out about the next Dump the Drugs National Take Back Day, contact MatForce at (928) 708-0100. Yavapai County Community Health Services can be reached at (928) 771-3122.