June 10, 2017

Your Medicines and the Environment

How do you usually dispose of your medicines? Do you throw them out with the regular household garbage, or perhaps you flush them down the toilet? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. A recent study* conducted by Return Unwanted Medicines and Griffith University revealed that most people (67%) said they disposed of their unwanted medicines with the usual household garbage; followed by being poured down the drain or toilet (23.3%) and less than a quarter (23%) disposed of their medicine the ‘right’ way, by returning them to pharmacy.   

How we dispose of medicines has a flow-on effect for the environment around us. It’s probably not something most of us have even considered before.

The irresponsible disposal of medicines is becoming increasingly concerning as they contain chemicals that can pose a serious risk to wildlife and humans. In the recent paper, Pharmaceutical Pollution in the Environment: Issues for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island countries, it was found that even low levels of pharmaceutical residues have been shown to alter physiological and behavioural attributes in the fish. This is alarming as it can have a greater impact on the broader population of fish and the wider ecosystem.

Closer to home, significant levels of strong painkillers and anti-depressants were found in water samples collected in and around Sydney Harbour in 2015 as part of a University of Sydney scientific testing. Other medicines found included beta blockers and epilepsy medication. While more investigation needs to be done, it’s disturbing. 

It’s not only waterways that are affected by medicine disposal either. Medicine that’s disposed of with the usual garbage bins ends up in landfill or buried in the ground, which affects soil composition, animals, plants and crops.

No matter how big or small, we all need to do our bit for the environment and dispose of our expired and unwanted medicines responsibly. Luckily there is a national scheme which makes doing the ‘right’ thing, even easier, and it’s called Return Unwanted Medicines (or the RUM Project).   

A national-wide and free service for everyone, Return Unwanted Medicines provides the safest way to dispose of medicines. All you need to do is gather your unwanted and expired medicines from around home, take them out of their packaging and take them back to your local pharmacy. Your pharmacist will then put them in a secure bin for safe disposal.

The Return of Unwanted Medicines Project is a free service that offers a way to dispose of unwanted or expired medicines safely and conveniently at your local community pharmacy. Find out more about the service here.


Murdoch, K 2015, Pharmaceutical Pollution in the Environment: Issues for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island countries, National Toxics Network, [Accessed 16 June 2017]

Scott, S & Branley, A 2015, Drugs Including painkillers, anti-depressants found in tests on Sydney Harbour Water, ABC News, [Accessed 16 June 2017]

*The National Return and Disposal of Unwanted Medicines Project Audit 2016 was conducted by Griffith University and funded by RUM and Australian Government Department of Health. The research consisted of two stages, and was conducted from June to October 2016. The first stage involved an audit of a sample of returned medicines containers from all Australian states and territories. In total, representative samples of 423 Return of Unwanted Medicines (RUM) bins from all Australian states / territories. The second stage involved a two-step general population audit that consisted of a survey to assess awareness of the NatRUM scheme, and the risks associated with the improper disposal of unwanted medicines and accumulation of medicines, and structured interviews with higher medication uses to identify perceptions and behaviours surrounding the disposal of unwanted medicines. There were 4302 adults from the Australian general population (including a sub-sample of 166 interview participants who were higher medication users) who participated in the research.


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