When it comes time to dispose of your leftover or expired medicines, you might be tempted to just toss unused pills into the trash—20 percent of people get rid of their meds this way, according to a recent Consumer Reports Best Buy Drugs nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 Americans.

But discarded drugs can contaminate landfill soil and the water supply, according to a study published in 2014 in the journal Environmental Science. And pills can be fished out of the garbage by kids and even pets.

A far better way to dispose of old and unused meds is to drop them off at National Prescription Drug Take Back Day, this Saturday, Oct. 28.

Throughout the U.S., from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can drop off unused pills and liquid medications at designated police departments, fire stations, health clinics, and other facilities in your community for proper disposal. (This doesn’t include inhalers or syringes; see below for how to dispose of those.)

To find a collection site near you, visit TakeBackDay.DEA.gov or call 800-882-9539. Drop-off is free and anonymous. 

A Safer Way to Clear Out Old Opioids

To help reduce prescription drug abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration, in conjunction with the Secure and Responsible Drug Disposal Act of 2010, launched Take Back Day seven years ago. Since then, this twice-yearly event has collected more than 900,000 pounds of medications.

Take Back Day goes a long way toward “eliminating the possibility of a family member or stranger removing your drugs from a medicine cabinet with the intent to misuse or abuse them,” says DEA spokesman Melvin S. Patterson.

More on Medication

Many people keep old or unused pills such as opioids in their cabinets because they don’t know how to dispose of them, Patterson says.

Recent research bears that out: According to a survey published last June in JAMA Internal Medicine, 60 percent of people who had been recently prescribed an opioid—Vicodin, Percocet, and others—reported holding on to the drugs for future use. Almost half said that they weren’t aware of how to properly store or dispose of the drugs.

Meanwhile, deaths from the use of these drugs have reached epidemic levels—91 people die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Anyone participating in Take Back Day is a welcome part of the solution to a significant problem,” Patterson adds. “It gives everyone an opportunity to take part in ridding our communities of old, unwanted, and potentially harmful drugs.”  

The drugs you turn in on Take Back Day are all incinerated—never redispensed or put into landfills, Patterson says.

Other Ways to Dispose

If you can’t participate in Take Back Day this Saturday but still have unused meds to get rid of, follow these steps:

Buy an envelope and mail back your meds. Costco, CVS, and Rite Aid pharmacies sell postage-paid envelopes for a few dollars that allow you to mail any prescription pills or liquids, including opioids and over-the-counter medications, to a disposal facility to be incinerated. (Do not send inhalers or syringes.)

Drop off at a free kiosk in CVS or Walgreens. As part of its initiative to address opioid misuse, CVS this week announced that it plans to offer free, anonymous, secure drug disposal kiosks at 750 pharmacy locations across the U.S. Walgreens already also offers safe drop-off at in-store kiosks. (Medications are incinerated.) To use one, remove your personal information from the bottle or packaging and drop your unwanted or expired medication, including controlled substances, in the slot.

Toss meds in the trash (only if you can’t purchase a mail-back envelope or get to a CVS or Walgreens kiosk). Doing so can contaminate the soil and water supply, so this is not an ideal solution. If you must throw drugs away, first conceal pills (from kids and pets) by mixing them in a bag or another container and mix them with an unappealing substance, like used coffee grounds or kitty litter. Then seal up the container and toss the item into the trash.

Last resort: flushing. This is not ideal because trace amounts of flushed meds can end up in drinking water and possibly harm aquatic life. Our survey found that 17 percent of people said this was their typical disposal method.

The Food and Drug Administration suggests flushing certain drugs, like dangerous opioids, when they are no longer needed, because they could be deadly if accidentally taken by someone else, particularly children.

Disposing of Syringes and Inhalers

You won’t be able to dispose of needles, syringes, or inhalers at National Take Back Day. And it’s not recommended that you throw these items into the trash.

For inhalers, contact your local trash and recycling facility for proper disposal instructions.

For needle disposal, go to safeneedledisposal.org or call 800-643-1643 to find drop-off locations near you. You’ll also find information on pharmaceutical company mail-back programs.

Do Expiration Dates Matter?

Drug manufacturers are required by law to stamp an expiration date on medication bottles, cartons, and tubes; it’s the date the manufacturer can guarantee maximum safety and potency based on testing.

Our medical experts say you can keep most prescription and over-the-counter drugs for about 12 months past the expiration date, with critical exceptions. The antibiotic tetracycline should never be taken after that date, because as tablets break down they can become toxic and cause kidney damage. It’s especially important to keep nitroglycerin and other liquid meds, like insulin and epinephrine (i.e., EpiPens) up-to-date. They lose potency after the expiration date, so they might not work as well or at all in an emergency.

Editor’s Note: This article and related materials are made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by the multistate settlement of consumer-fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).