13:15 PM

The dos and don’ts of medication disposal

Stock photo of pills

A 2023 resolution may be to clean out the medicine cabinet. With that comes advice you’ve heard plenty.

Don’t flush old or unwanted medicine down the toilet. It may end up in the water supply and harm plants and animals.

Don’t put the pills in the trash either. It just adds to the landfill.

But Corey Bates, manager of Pharmacy Operations at OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony’s Health Center in Alton, Illinois, says there are bigger consequences you can’t just gloss over.

“Many times, we’ve read reports of people who take medication from their parent’s medicine chest. They go to a party, and everybody dumps a bottle into a bowl. Throughout the party, everybody just takes out whatever they want to party with.

“That’s one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Bates says. “Just because it’s in your medicine chest doesn’t mean it’s an opioid or anything that’s going to make you feel better. It could stop your heart.”

Bates and others who are passionate about reducing drug abuse are reminding you of options to safely get rid of medication – each with its own dos and don’ts.

OSF HealthCare drop boxes

Several OSF HealthCare facilities – including the Alton hospital where Bates works – have drop boxes at the entrance. Here’s what you need to know about that option.

  • The boxes are available 24/7 and within a few steps of where you can temporarily park your car. They’re bolted to the concrete floor, meaning they’re not going anywhere. Once items are put inside, only authorized OSF Mission Partners (employees) like Bates can open them. That happens with at least two Mission Partners present, so there’s no risk of someone taking any of the disposed medication.

“It’s kind of like a mailbox,” Bates says. “You pull open the lever. There’s an open door. You drop [the drugs] in the box. You push the lever back. [The drugs] go into a secure box underneath the opening. Nobody can reach it. Nobody can retrieve [the drugs].”

  • There’s no charge to drop off items.
  • Prescription and non-prescription drugs are OK to drop off.
  • When possible, deposit the pills in a covering, such as a plastic bag or the little bottle they came in.
  • Items that are accepted: pills, capsules, tablets, powders, sealed insulin vials, vitamins, ointments and patches.
  • On the no list: needles or other sharps, inhalers, aerosol cans, thermometers, lotions, liquids (including IV bags and tubes) and hydrogen peroxide. The reasons are obvious, Bates says. Needles and hydrogen peroxide can harm a person emptying the box. Inhalers, aerosols and thermometers can explode when the items are destroyed. Lotions and liquids can leave a stinky or sticky mess.
  • Pet medicine can be dropped off, too, as long as it meets the guidelines.
  • When it comes to illegal drugs, Bates recommends the police be your first point of contact. But for others you send down the drop box, there’s no privacy concern.

“If you want to take a black marker and mark through your name, that’s quite OK. Or try to peel off the prescription labels, that’s fine too,” Bates says. “But no one is looking at any of the labels. We’re just closing the top of the box, taping it shut and contacting our company.”

  • Once the drop box is full, OSF Mission Partners safely send the contents to an outside company that destroys the drugs by lighting them on fire.

Taking notice

It’s clear the OSF drop boxes are having their intended effect.

Missi Herzberg of Rosewood Heights, Illinois, is a patient at OSF Moeller Cancer Center on the campus of OSF Saint Anthony’s. As part of her communications coursework at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Herzberg is producing a public service announcement (PSA) about the drop boxes at OSF Saint Anthony’s and the overall importance of this issue. She recently spent time at the hospital shooting video of people using the drop box with their permission.

“I really thought about what PSA would be beneficial. I didn’t want to do something everyone else had done, like texting and driving,” Herzberg says. “I actually opened my cabinet and saw a bottle of expired medicine, and that gave me the idea.

“Showing people that there is a place to dispose of medication is important to everyone,” Herzberg adds.

Other options

Another option for medicine disposal is national drug take back days. The events are initiative of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and are held every few months, with the next one coming up on October 29. The DEA partners with local groups, such as Crime Stoppers, to offer events to drop off unwanted medicine. Depending on the event, other items may be accepted, too. This could include old cellphones and financial documents which will be shredded to help prevent identity theft.

Your local pharmacy or public health department may have drug take back options. You can search the DEA website for these sites. Bates says pharmacies may sell hard plastic boxes that allow you to throw away needles – an option that may not be offered in other places.

“Some people even make their own [needle boxes],” Bates says. “They find a hard plastic container like the one that holds your dishwasher pods. It’s very hard. Nothing can break into it. Seal it up with duct tape, and you can throw it away safely.”

One big thing to know

The bottom line, Bates says: don’t hang on to medicine that isn’t useful anymore.

“Sometimes people don’t use all of their medication because they want to have some left over in case they get sick again. That’s not really a good plan.

“Most medications that you get are for a set period of time, especially for infections,” Bates says. “A doctor wants you to take it for seven days or 10 days. And you feel better on day five and decide to hold up a few in case it comes back. If it comes back, you’re probably going to have another seven to 10 day course of therapy.”

Interview clips

View Corey Bates on pill abuse
Corey Bates on pill abuse
View Corey Bates on the drop box
Corey Bates on the drop box
View Corey Bates on marking out information
Corey Bates on marking out information
View Corey Bates on needle boxes
Corey Bates on needle boxes
View Corey Bates on taking meds properly
Corey Bates on taking meds properly


B-roll of OSF HealthCare medication drop box