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Safe Disposal of Waste Medicines

Gwyn Williams
Nov 29, 2021 1:30:00 AM

As humans, we will inevitably fall ill many times during our lives. Not just ourselves, but also family members that live in our household.

Like many people, you may find that your medicine cupboard has medication that is either out of date, or no longer needed.

Sooner or later, it's time for you to date check the contents and safely dispose of waste medication. If you choose to keep unused medication and it goes past the expiry date, you and others could consume the medication without realising they’ve expired. When medicines have passed their expiry date, taking them could either be ineffective or cause undesirable side effects.

If you find you have waste medication, you must think about safe medication disposal; it's important.

This article will help you learn how to dispose of waste medication safely.

How can you reduce your waste?

Before we cover how to safely dispose of waste medication it’s worth considering how you can reduce your waste. Every year in the UK, it’s estimated that unused medicines cost the NHS around £300 million.

Before you request a new prescription from your GP, you should consider if you already have enough medication and whether you need a new prescription. A repeat prescription app such as MedAdvisor can help you keep track of how many days’ supply you have of each medication.

If you find that you are being prescribed larger quantities than you’re using you should speak to your GP, or pharmacist, to discuss why you’re either not taking the item as prescribed, or if the re-order quantities are incorrect. Should you not intend to take a prescribed medication, or feel you don’t need it, you should talk to your GP rather than continuing to request more supply.

If you don’t need an item as you don’t use it regularly, for example if you only use a cream when needed, you don’t have to order it each month. You should only order what you need. If an item is prescribed and you don’t need it, you can also ask your pharmacy not to supply the item and they can mark the prescription as “not dispensed”.

You can find more information on how to reduce your medication waste by clicking here.

Why is safe disposal of medication important?

If not disposed of properly, waste medication could cause harm to other humans, animals and the environment.

Here are just a few ways inappropriate disposal of medication could cause harm:

Accidental poisoning

If you place waste medication in a household bin, it could be found and accidentally be taken by a child or an animal. After all, animals and children are naturally curious and love to explore. Never dispose of waste medication in your household bin.

Controlled Drugs have more potential to cause harm if inadvertently taken by a child or animal so extra care is required.  Examples of Controlled Drugs are opiate painkillers used for end -of-life care or opiate-substitutes used to treat addiction. It is especially important to store Controlled Drugs safely when using them, and then to carefully dispose of waste when they’re no longer required. 

Contaminate the environment

If waste medication is placed in landfill, the active ingredients could dissolve in rainwater and find their way into the water system, causing contamination. This could affect wildlife, as well as potentially getting into drinking water. For this reason, medication should not be poured down the sink, flushed down the toilet or thrown in the bin, as it could pollute water systems and cause harm to humans and wildlife.

Transmission of disease

Unsafe disposal of used sharps, such as needles and lancets, could result in needle-stick injuries, where a person accidentally gets jabbed by a needle or sharp. As well as causing distress and worry to the person who has the needle-stick injury, blood-borne diseases can be transmitted in this way, for example, HIV and Hepatitis C. All sharps should be disposed of safely with extra care being taken to ensure they don’t accidentally cause harm to others.

When should you dispose of waste medication?

You should regularly check the contents of your medicines cupboard to check if you have any unwanted, or date expired, medication. Some of the reasons you may find yourself with waste medication are when:

  • There is a change or an end to treatment. As soon as your treatment changes, you should dispose of unwanted medication rather than store it at home.
  • If you move to another care setting and your medicines change. If you’re taken into Hospital your medication may be changed, so when you return home you should check all your medicines are still required. Similarly, if you go into a care home for respite care your medication may be changed so when you return home you should check you have the correct medication to take. If the strength of the medication, or medication itself, has changed you should arrange safe disposal of your unwanted medication, so you don’t accidentally take the wrong medication.
  • After someone you care for dies, you need to safely dispose of their medication. You may need to hold onto it should there be any investigations, but once any investigations have been completed you should arrange for them to be safely disposed.
  • All medicines have an expiry date, that is the date after which they are no longer safe and effective to use. Once medicines have passed their expiry date, you must dispose of them safely. Always read the leaflet that you received with your medication as some medicines need to be disposed of on the "use by" date rather than the expiry date, for example, some medicines will last a few years if unopened but will only last a few weeks after the container has been opened.

How should you safely dispose of waste medication?

Generally, you should return all waste medication, whether opened or not, to your pharmacy for them to safely destroy. When you visit your pharmacy to ask them to dispose of your waste medication, they’ll ask you if there are any Controlled Drugs or sharps in the bag. It’s important you provide this information so that the pharmacy staff can safely handle your waste medication and destroy it appropriately.

If you administer medication that uses needles, lancets, clippers, or blades (sharps), they should be disposed of in a sharps bin. You can get a sharps bin on prescription from your GP. Placing sharps in a bin reduces the risk of needle-based injuries and the passing on of blood-borne viruses. To dispose of them, you should contact your local council, who may be able to collect them from your home. Only selected pharmacies can accept waste sharps so check before you visit your pharmacy.

If you have any unused or leftover Controlled Drugs, you should keep them separate rather than placing in a bag with your other waste medication. Depending on the Controlled Drug, your pharmacy team may ask for your name and address so that they can make a record that you’ve handed them in for destruction; this is nothing to worry about, it just allows a record to be made. Once returned, your pharmacy will safely destroy them in the pharmacy using a special destruction kit, so they're no longer able to be used.

Used inhalers should also be returned to your pharmacy and you should never put them in your rubbish bin; they contain gases that could be released into the atmosphere contributing to global warming.

If you have any cardboard packaging or paper leaflets, you can recycle them.

Keeping track of medication supply to reduce waste

To keep track of your medication supply and know when to order a new repeat prescription from your GP, download the MedAdvisor app on your smartphone or log in to our website and create an account.

Once you've created an account, you will be able to view your full list of repeat medication and days’ supply left of each. The app will let you know when to order so you can only order what you need. Once logged in, select the medication you wish to order, and the request will be sent to your GP surgery. After your GP has reviewed and approved your request, they will send the prescription electronically to your chosen pharmacy to dispense.

The MedAdvisor app provides alerts to notify you when you need to order your prescription and real-time notifications when your medicine is ready to collect from your pharmacy.

To order repeat medication using the MedAdvisor app, all you need to do is the following:

  1. Download the MedAdvisor app.
  2. Select your chosen pharmacy.
  3. Order your medication.
  4. Receive notification from your pharmacy once it's ready to collect.

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