Ask Eartha Steward: Disposing of medications |

Ask Eartha Steward: Disposing of medications

High Country Conservation Center
High Country Conservation Center

“Eartha, how am I supposed to get rid of old medicines? I’ve heard they shouldn’t be flushed or sent to the landfill.”

” Maggie, Summit County

If you think about it, “What happens when you flush” is a lot like “Where does the trash go once it leaves your doorstep” ” they both trigger the “out of sight, out of mind” reflexes in most of us.

Face it, do you really think about the journey of your toilet’s water and your waste every time you flush? Well, maybe if you’re bored. But come on, just like the sink and the garbage can, it must go somewhere, where someone takes care of it, so why worry? Right?

Well if every one of us in Summit County thought that way, we’d be in a whole lot of trouble ” especially when the average American has several expired medications haunting their medicine cabinet. From birth control pills to pain killers to antidepressants, what do we do with unwanted or outdated medications?

First of all, don’t take the easy route! Back away from the flusher! Pouring medications down the toilet or the drain is actually a bad idea. No matter how many times your brain tries to tell you that flushed meds will go to a happy place where everything magically disappears, ignore it!

Want to know what really happens? Here’s the poop:

Our wastewater may go through a treatment process, but our modern sewage plants aren’t 100 percent effective. Even if small amounts of prescriptive drugs make it through the system, can you imagine the impact on our environment over time? You always have to consider what happens downstream. That “somewhere” may be a stream in your back yard.

Consider all of the other contaminants that make it down the toilet and drain. It’s difficult to grasp how much household hazardous waste including toilet bowel sanitizers, paints, pesticides, sink cleaners, and laundry products go down the drain each day. You have to believe that it is impossible to completely remove all these toxins from our waste water supply. So where does it all go?

Tell your brain this ” antibiotics and hormones have been showing up in our waterways for years. In 2002, a U.S. Geological Survey found traces of dozens of medicines including estrogen, blood pressure drugs, and antidepressants in 80 percent of the 139 streams it sampled in 30 states (Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in US streams, 1999-2000).

Listen up fishermen and wildlife enthusiasts alike, drugs in our waterways is a hazard to fish and plants. From the Potomac River near Washington D.C. to the Brazos River in Texas, fish have been popping up with unusual levels of estrogen. Yikes!

If flushed medicines are affecting our fish and wildlife, isn’t it reasonable to assume that we might be at risk too?

There are also problems and risks with throwing expired medications in the trash can. Which takes us back to the question, “Where does garbage go once it leaves your house?” The landfill isn’t a protective bubble that permanently separates toxins from life outside of the landfill, and unfortunately, these toxins still have potential to leach out into our soils and waterways.

So what’s the solution? First of all, the best solution is to take all of your meds like the doctor prescribed in the first place. If this isn’t a possibility, there are a couple of options I found for properly disposing of unwanted and expired medications.

One option is to ask your pharmacy or physician for advice. I contacted a couple of local pharmacies and they suggested crushing or pulverizing old pills, returning them to their child-safe container, placing them in a thick Ziploc plastic bag, and throwing them in the garbage. After crushing the pills, you can also add water and mix with kitty litter, coffee grounds, or saw dust, place in a plastic bag, and discard.

I have a couple of problems with this option because I don’t like to waste plastic bags and containers. And there is still a small chance that the substance inside the container can leak out in the thousand years that it might sit in a landfill. Do we really need to add more stuff to our landfill anyway?

I’ve also heard of medicine recycling programs in various pharmacies throughout the United States. I didn’t find one locally but it never hurts to voice your concerns and needs for proper disposal when you pick up your meds.

If you do have any questions about the disposal of household hazardous wastes such as those talked about in this week’s Eartha column, contact Summit County’s Household Hazardous Waste facility at (970) 468-9623. Like they say, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier, Jennifer Kirkpatrick, and Heather Christie, consultants on all things eco and chic at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Eartha believes that you can walk gently on our planet, even if you’re wearing stylie shoes.

Submit questions to Eartha at with Ask Eartha as the subject or to High Country Conservation Center, P.O. Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.

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