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What is Pharmaceutical Waste?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Pharmaceutical waste is a form of medical waste that includes unused medications, over-the-counter personal care products, and sometimes accessories such as sharps, used test strips, and other supplies. It is a cause for concern because it poses a threat to human and environmental health. Because of the dangers, pharmaceutical waste cannot be disposed of like conventional waste and requires special handling, whether it comes from a hospital, clinic, pharmacy, or private household. Other types of medical waste include biohazardous waste and radiation waste.

There are several concerns with the management of pharmaceutical waste. The first is that medications released into the environment by being thrown away or excreted in unmetabolized form could pose health risks. Some drugs contain heavy metals, endocrine disruptors, and other compounds that are dangerous for animals and the environment. There is also a risk that poorly controlled waste could end up in the hands of people who misuse the medications.

Supplies like sharps, sometimes classified as a form of pharmaceutical waste, can contain hazards such as blood, in addition to putting people at risk of injury. Other risks of pharmaceutical waste can include the development of antibiotic resistance in organisms exposed to the waste, or disruption of the balance of flora at sewage treatment plants as a result of exposure to excreted drugs. Chemicals in products like sunscreen, shampoos, and soaps can cause environmental damages, especially when they are released on a large scale.

Historically, people were often advised to flush excess medications down the toilet, while disposing of supplies like unused sharps in the same medical waste containers designated for biohazardous sharps. However, the practice of flushing medications is no longer encouraged since wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to handle pharmaceuticals. Instead, individual consumers may be told to wrap their medication containers in tape to prevent leakage before throwing them away, or to bring them to a hazardous waste collection site.

On the scale of clinics and hospitals, pharmaceutical waste can be collected along with other medical waste by a company that specializes in handling potentially hazardous waste materials. A special fee is typically charged for this collection service. Unused and expired medications and other pharmaceutical supplies can be safely disposed of by waste management companies. This includes over-the-counter preparations, ranging from sunscreen to aspirin, that may need to be discarded as a result of expiration or spoilage. Certain unused products may be eligible for donations, another potential avenue for disposal.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By miriam98 — On Jul 17, 2011

I do know that EPA pharmaceutical waste regulations have become more stringent in recent years.

In our state a healthcare facility was fined by the EPA for not practicing proper disposal of medical waste. The fine was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. On the other hand, this kind of thing does pose a challenge and I believe that the government needs to help businesses address the unique problems involved in getting rid of the stuff.

I think existing waste treatment facilities need to be retooled so that they can handle biomedical waste products. I can’t imagine it would be all that hard. They can, after all, filter out some chemicals, and that’s what drugs are in the final analysis.

By David09 — On Jul 16, 2011

@hamje32 - Twice a year in our town a recycling center holds a big event in a big parking lot where they encourage people to come bring their recyclable fluids and stuff.

I don’t recall what is and is not on the list of things they will take (I do remember they won’t take gasoline, because I tried to get rid of that to no avail).

However, I guess I should check with them this year and see if they’ll take pharmaceutical medications. It’s not worth a special trip, but I can bring the medications along with other stuff that I know they will recycle. You might want to check and see if you have something similar where you live.

By hamje32 — On Jul 16, 2011

I had no idea that it was no longer recommended to flush unused medicines down the toilet.

That’s what I’ve been doing up until now. If I had a bottle of prescription medicine like antibiotics or something I flushed them down the toilet, thinking that I was being environmentally conscious. I made sure we never threw the stuff into the trash.

If disposal of medical waste requires a trip to some recycled medical waste facility or something like, that makes it a little more inconvenient.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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