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A new study concludes that throwing away unused prescription drugs in the trash may be the most environmentally friendly option. The study appears shortly after the Drug Enforcement Administration’s fourth National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, which collected 276 tons of unwanted or expired prescription medications.

The researchers compared the environmental impact of flushing medication, throwing it in the trash, and burning it. Drugs collected through take-back programs are incinerated. The study took into account how much of the drugs would enter the environment, as well as emission impacts from water treatment, transportation and burning of waste materials, NPR reports.

They found flushing allows the highest levels of drugs to enter the environment, and creates more air pollution than throwing unused drugs in the trash. Drug collecting and the burning that follows produce far greater emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants than the other two options, the researchers found. That is largely due to the travel required for people to come to drop-off points, and for the drugs to be shipped somewhere to be incinerated.

“It’s surprising to find out that even though there’s this push towards take-back, trash seems to be the best option for several different reasons,” lead author Sherri Cook of the University of Michigan, told NPR. Cook noted that when people throw their drugs out at home, they are using an infrastructure that already exists for collecting household trash.

The findings appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The Food and Drug Administration’s website explains the best ways to dispose of unused medications, including directions for throwing them away in household trash.


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