Half of Americans stock up on old, expired medications to avoid future trips to doctor

NEW YORK — Despite growing awareness of the opioid crisis across the United States, a new study finds many still have no problem “writing themselves” a new prescription. Nearly half of Americans (49%) say they stock up on old medications to save themselves future trips 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 just medicate it themselves. Half the poll of 2,000 Americans have even taken it upon themselves to diagnose friends and family. These respondents go as far as offering them their stash of leftover medications. Researchers also find people have an average of four leftover bottles of medication or prescription drugs in their medicine cabinets. Three out of four have expired.

Over half the poll (53%) say they have no idea what to do with their old medications. Nearly three in five (58%) will hold onto their old medications just in case they need them in the future or to save money. Researchers add these respondents are relatively unphased by potential health impacts that can come from using meds beyond their expiration date.

Commissioned by Covanta and conducted by OnePoll in advance of the next National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on April 24, the study reveals nearly two-thirds (63%) dispose of old medications at home.

How do you ‘properly’ dispose of expired medications anyway?

Old MedicationFor 59 percent, throwing old medications in the trash is an expedient way to dispose of old or expired medications. However this doesn’t give much thought as to whether or not they will end up in a landfill or someone else’s hands. Likewise, 58 percent believe it’s fine to flush medications down the toilet or sink, where they could 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 groundwater 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,” says 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, in a statement.

Making drug disposal eco-friendly

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency holds two National Prescription Drug Take Back Days a year — in April and October. However, these aren’t the only two dates to get rid of old drugs every year. Many local police departments and pharmacies now offer year-round secure returns.

More than two-thirds of the poll (68%) would be willing to change their disposal ways if they knew how. However, 44 percent aren’t aware of public events for returning old, expired medications in a safe, environmentally-friendly manner.

Meanwhile, 58 percent say they’ve 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 a pharmacy (55%), a hospital (54%), at a police station (50%), or a local firehouse (39%).

More options to get rid of old drugs

Old MedicationLike most things these days, the coronavirus pandemic is having impact of drug disposal too. Researchers find the pandemic has shifted the way 51 percent choose to dispose of old or unused medications. As the survey indicates, there is support for implementing new and convenient take-back options.

Nearly four in five (78%) would likely take advantage of a mail-back option for proper disposal. However, these Americans want pharmacies to provide the necessary materials when they pick up their prescriptions.

Waste-to-Energy (WTE) technology is another sustainable option for managing this type of waste. Sixty-three percent of Americans are in favor of using WTE as a method to dispose of medication. Nearly the same number (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,” Veenhof continues. “Unlike other disposal, where there is the potential for medications to contaminate surface or groundwater, medications processed at Waste-to-Energy facilities are combusted with minimal environmental impact, while creating electricity for surrounding communities and businesses.”

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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