Household Hazardous Waste > Disposing pharmaceuticals safely

pharmsMany OTC drugs and prescriptions have child-proof caps. But are they really child-proof? Or are they really just child resistant? There are many dangers associated with keeping unneeded pharmaceuticals around. Children and animals may get into them. You may get them confused with currently used medication. So you decide to clean out your medicine cabinet and throw away or flush the unused medication. But is this really a safe or environmentally friendly way to get rid of unneeded pharmaceuticals?

If the medication is thrown away, it is collected, compressed and sent to the landfill where over time it decomposes and rain and moisture leach from the landfill into groundwater or local streams polluting local water sources. Unwanted medicine disposed in the trash can also be stolen and used, potentially resulting in illness or death. Pharmaceuticals primarily enter wastewater treatment plants from two sources: 1) excretion by the human body; and 2) disposal of unused or expired medications down the drain or toilet. Water treatment plants are designed to decompose organic matter in sewage and disinfect the treated wastewater. However, many pharmaceuticals pass through the treatment process unchanged. So when the treated water is released to local sources, we have released the medications into a water source and natural habitat for marine life.

In March 2002, the United States Geological Society conducted a nationwide study of surface waters. Of the 139 streams sampled, 80% of the water samples had small but measurable concentrations of prescription and nonprescription drugs, steroids, and reproductive hormones. These medications can have adverse impacts on our water supply and marine life.

So, you ask, how can I dispose of my unneeded or unwanted medications in a safe manner? The City of Vacaville Utilities Division, Water Quality, in cooperation with the Vacaville Police Department and the City of Vacaville Recycling Program tries to hold one day collection events about twice a year.  At these events, residents can bring their expired or unwanted medications for safe and secure disposal.  It is best to remove or black out any information on the medication bottles or even remove the medications from the bottles or blister packs.  Please note these events DO NOT collect illegal substances.  It's best to keep an eye on the monthly Grapevine publication or The Reporter for advertising on these events.  You can also call the Recycling Coordinator at 707-469-6509 to inquire about upcoming events.


If for some reason you are unable to wait for an upcoming event, here are a few helpful hints for medication disposal:

  • Put in a sturdy and securely sealed container (duct tape the lid to the container) and then in a trash can where children and pets can’t reach them.
  • When possible, mix the medications with an undesirable substance such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter.
  • Wrap several layers of masking tape or duct tape to cover and hide blister packs.
  • It is a good idea to use a plastic container when disposing of liquid in a glass bottle to contain the spill if the glass container breaks.
  • Hide all medications in an outer container such as a paper bag and wrap in several layers of newspaper to prevent discovery and removal from the trash.
  • To secure identification, remove the patient’s name, drug name, prescription number and other personal information from the container before disposal.


These steps will help to ensure a healthier and safer environment for you and your family. If you have additional questions please call the Recycling Coordinator at (707) 469-6509.

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