Bin? Flush? Bury? What do you do with those leftover drugs?

The incorrect disposal of medicines can have a major impact on the environment, a fact that has been reinforced in a recent study by Monash University.

The study, supported by wide-ranging research, found that incorrectly disposed of medicines like antidepressants can find their way into our waterways and can change the behaviour of fish.

One study found the effect of pharmaceuticals in water, particularly fluoxetine (the main active ingredient in Prozac), has resulted in fish changing sex and their behaviour, like that of some birds, being altered to make them more susceptible to predators.

These findings highlight the need for people to correctly dispose of unwanted medicines.

A big clean up


At this time of the year when many people are clearing out their medicine cabinets for the New Year, they may find medicines that are past their expiry date or simply have not been used.

Old and unwanted medicines need to be disposed of as they may deteriorate with time, and this results in changes to their chemical make-up. These changes can make the medicines less effective or, in some cases, potentially harmful and toxic if they are used after their expiry date.

So we need to get rid of these old medicines, but what is the best way to do this?

Some people who get rid of old medicines do so in a potentially harmful way. Getting rid of unwanted medicines has for too long been achieved by simply throwing them in the garbage or flushing them down the sink or toilet. It has been estimated that more than 500 tonnes of medicines find their way into waterways and landfill every year.

Both these methods have dangers and studies have shown even medicines disposed of in landfill have leached back into the food chain via water or fertilisers made from landfill or sewage solids.

Dangers to drinking water

Photo by Daria Shevtsova.


There is even a danger of trace amounts of some of these medicines making their way into drinking water.

The reality is that treatment plants for water and sewage are not designed to remove drugs or medicines from the water. With sewage the residual drugs tends to collect in higher concentrations in the sludge which is then often used in the production of fertilisers for crops grown for human consumption.

The only safe way to dispose of these unwanted medicines is through your community pharmacy.

National President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia George Tambassis said the community pharmacy profession has a scheme called Return Unwanted Medicines (RUM) which collects unwanted medicines and disposes of them via special high-temperature sealed incinerators.

‘This scheme sees pharmacists collect more than 700 tonnes of unwanted or out-of-date medicines a year and ensures they are disposed of effectively and safely, said Mr Tambassis.

‘The RUM Project, which is available through pharmacies nationally, provides the safest and easiest way to dispose of unwanted and out-of-date medicines. It makes it possible to return all household medicines to any pharmacy for free to ensure safe collection and disposal.

Mr Tambassis says this is a very important program and one which community pharmacies have embraced. ‘I urge everyone to bring their unwanted medicines into the pharmacy and if they have any questions speak to their pharmacist about them.’

Special containers are used to ensure the returned medicines are secure until collected for disposal.

The RUM project advises consumers:

  • Don’t flush medicines down the toilet. Sewerage plants can’t treat all chemicals in waste water, resulting in contamination of waterways.
  • Don’t pour medicines down the sink. Household medicines contain highly soluble chemicals which when entered into water systems can harm aquatic life.
  • Don’t throw medicines into the garbage bin. Household medicines disposed of this way end up in exposed landfill sites.

Rather is urges consumers to:

  • Check expiry dates on all medicines and separate all expired medicines into a container for return.
  • Check all the medicines are actually needed – separate those medicines no longer needed into the container for return.
  • Take the container to a community pharmacy for disposal.

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