October 16, 2018

Household Pharmaceuticals Collected by Law Enforcement

Unwanted pharmaceuticals generated by household consumers are not a federal hazardous waste per §261.4(b)(1). Instead, these waste pharmaceuticals are generally handled through state and municipal solid waste collection and disposal programs. These drugs may pose a risk to human health and the environment (e.g., substance abuse, flushing down the drain). On September 11, 2018, EPA issued RO 14906 to assist law enforcement officials in managing household pharmaceuticals collected through take-back programs. This memo expands upon previous agency guidance in RO 14833 and 14853.

One solution for law enforcement is to participate in the national prescription drug take-back program held every year on the last Saturday of April and October. This program is sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and has successfully collected nearly 10 million pounds of unwanted drugs since the program’s inception in 2010. Other take-back programs are in operation on an ongoing basis.

Many pharmaceuticals are considered controlled substances as defined by DEA. As such, EPA recommends that collected household pharmaceuticals be sent for destruction via hazardous waste incinerators or solid waste combustion units. This is consistent with DEA’s requirement that these pharmaceuticals be destroyed so that they are “non-retrievable” (defined in 21 CFR 1300.05). Incinerators are not, however, obligated to accept collected household pharmaceuticals for destruction. As an alternative, law enforcement can choose to ship the pharmaceuticals to a DEA-registered “reverse distributor” (defined in 21 CFR 13001.01). (An up-to-date list of DEA-registered reverse distributors is available by contacting DEA.) A reverse distributor may then incinerate the pharmaceutical waste themselves or, more likely, deliver the pharmaceuticals to an incinerator and witness their destruction on behalf of law enforcement.

Another option available to law enforcement is to hand out mail-back envelopes to individuals in their communities. These envelopes are compliant with federal and state law, pre-addressed, and postage-paid. Individuals then mail the envelopes to DEA-registered locations where the envelopes will be destroyed via onsite incineration. More information on DEA’s drug disposal programs can be found on their website.


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