So do you just throw pills out, or...?

Photo by waltarrrrr |

Springtime is here - and so is the standard “spring cleaning.” Students are moving into new homes for the following year, people are putting away their winter clothes, and homeowners are rearranging their garages or sheds from snow care to lawn care. Last year around this time, I wrote an article about how to reduce your spring cleaning waste. As I started to tidy up things in my own house this year, I realized I forgot one important element in that article. What do you do with old medications? 

As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is not just throw them out or flush them down the toilet. As was previously written about in the Starfish, birth control pills are one of the many medications that have been studied to cause harm to the environment. Recent studies on improper medication disposal in the garbage and household water systems, have found low levels of steroids, antibiotics, pain killers, antidepressants and anti-inflammatories in soils, surface waters and groundwaters.

While this varies from region to region, the presence of these medications in the environment has serious consequences. For example, antiobiotics in the environment can increase the development of resistant strains of bacteria and some steroids can affect the sexual health of various aquatic species. Consequently, it is important to consider the proper disposal of our medications in order to preserve our ecosystems, water supply and soil quality.


So what are the best steps that you can take?

1) The first is the obvious – follow the directions given to you by your physician and pharmacist. If they do not give you directions on how to dispose of your medications, feel free to ask them as they are the professionals qualified to inform you of the proper steps to take. Remember that you should not store old medications (as they do expire) or give them to someone else (it happens all the time and it’s a dangerous decision to make).

2) The next option is to see if your pharmacy participates in a drug take-back program (which most Canadian pharmacies do). These programs ensure that unused or expired pharmaceuticals are disposed of in environmentally friendly methods. Remember that these programs are not limited to only prescription medications - they can also take back over the counter drugs such as cough syrup or anti-inflammatories.

3) The last option available to you is to browse your local, municipal waste collection services to see if they have a program to take back old drugs. Usually, these involve some kind of collection day or drop off site for your unwanted medications.


In terms of how often you should do this, the Government of Canada recommends to go through your medicine at least once a year to dispose of all the prescription and over the counter drugs you do not use anymore. It is a simple set of steps to complete, but it has an important impact. So while you’re cleaning out your house this year, don’t just throw away those unused pills in the garbage. Research your options, make the right choice, and tell your friends!