By Joseph Staples // SWNS Staff


Despite some nationwide efforts to combat the opioid crisis, Americans are still hoarding and improperly disposing of their expired medications, suggests a new study.

A survey of 2,000 general population Americans found over half (53%) have no idea what to do with their old medications. On average, people have four leftover bottles of old medications and prescriptions in their medicine cabinets. Three out of those four are expired.

Nearly three out of five (58%) will hold onto their old medications just in case they need them in the future or to save money, unphased by potential health impacts that can come from using them beyond their intended date.

For 49%, the motivation comes from saving themselves a trip to the doctor. More than half (54%) feel they don’t need a doctor to diagnose them with a common health issue if they can medicate it themselves. Half of Americans (50%) have even taken it upon themselves to diagnose friends and family, offering them their unused medications.

Commissioned by Covanta and conducted by OnePoll in advance of the next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day in April, the study found nearly two-thirds (63%) of those surveyed dispose of old medications at home.

For 59% of people, throwing old medications in the trash is an expedient way to dispose of old or expired medications, without giving much thought as to whether or not they will end up in a landfill. Likewise, 58% believe it’s fine to flush medications down the toilet or sink., where it can pollute water sources.

To compound the issue, three out of four of those who dispose of medications in these ways do so despite knowing the potential environmental damage these methods pose to ground water and other water systems.

“While it may seem easy to toss your unused medications in the trash or save old prescriptions for later, this seemingly innocent act has the potential to cause a lot of harm. Improper disposal of medications poses a significant threat to the environment and holding on to old or expired medications could lead to ineffective treatments, abuse or worst yet, end up in the hands of children. Finding secure and proper methods of disposal, like mail back envelopes and drop boxes, is more convenient than one may think,” said Derek W. Veenhof, Chief Operating Officer at Covanta, a sustainable waste management company that provides secure disposal of medications at its waste-to-energy facilities.

The United States Drug Enforcement Agency holds two National Prescription Drug Take Back Days a year– in April and October. However, the public isn’t limited to those two dates. Many local police departments and pharmacies now offer year-round secure return.

More than two-thirds (68%) of Americans would be willing to change their ways and dispose of medications properly if they knew how.

Forty-four percent aren’t aware of public events for returning old, expired medications in a safe, environmentally friendly manner.

Meanwhile, 58% have disposed of medications at one of these public take-back events or at a drop-off point in the past. The most popular places to safely dispose of medications include the pharmacy (55%), the hospital (54%), at a police station (50%) and at a local firehouse (39%).

Like most things these days, this issue has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has shifted the way half (51%) choose to dispose of old or unused medications.

But, as the survey indicates, there is support for implementing convenient take back options. Nearly four out of five (78%) would be likely to take advantage of a mail-back option for proper disposal if they were provided the necessary materials when they pick up their prescriptions.

Waste-to-Energy (WTE) technology is another sustainable option for managing this type of waste. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of Americans are in favor of using WTE as a method to dispose of medication. Likewise, nearly two thirds (62%) agree WTE is overall more sustainable than landfilling pharmaceutical waste.

“Waste-to-Energy facilities are uniquely suited to dispose of medications and have a long history of handling the safe and secure destruction of pharmaceuticals regulated by federal and state agencies,” continued Veenhof. “Unlike other disposal, where there is the potential for medications to contaminate surface or ground water, medications processed at Waste-to-Energy facilities are combusted with minimal environmental impact, while creating electricity for surrounding communities and businesses.”



  1. At a pharmacy                                55%
  2. At a hospital                                    54%
  3. At a police station                           50%
  4. At a fire station                                39%
  5. Via mail in pre-paid envelopes       15%


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