How to Manage Unused Medical Supplies
- Guidelines are available for the proper disposal of medications to prevent unauthorized use.
- You can donate, sell, or dispose of medical equipment and supplies following local recyclable and battery disposal guidelines.
- Instead of throwing away extra products, you can donate unused medical supplies like personal protective equipment (PPE) and wound care items.
Wound care, intravenous therapy, nutritional support, and medication administration are available as in-home care options—but how do you manage unused medical supplies? Changing care needs can leave you with an excess of supplies ranging from mattress pads to syringes and even medical furniture.
Navigating whether to donate, throw away, sell, or recycle certain medical materials can be stressful. We’ll explore how to address unused medical supplies without letting them go to waste.
Why plan ahead of time for medical supplies?
Planning ahead for managing unused medications, equipment, and supplies requires a bit of time and research. Medical supplies and equipment can add up over time and often create clutter in the home.
You can rent and return most of the more expensive durable medical equipment (DME) like wheelchairs, power chairs, hospital beds, and intravenous pumps. Throwing away repurposable items creates avoidable waste.
Disposing sharps and unused medications requires additional care to avoid potential harm to others. Sharps are items intended to puncture or cut the skin, including needles, syringes, lancets, and infusion sets.
The FDA has established guidelines for medication and sharps disposal. Likewise, the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Diversion Control Division provides information for proper drug disposal.
Navigating leftover medical equipment and supplies can be an emotional experience, particularly if your care recipient has died. Having a plan for managing extra equipment in advance can help alleviate your stress and allow you to focus on other needs during a difficult time.
What to do with prescription medicines
Unfortunately, prescription drug misuse occurs throughout the United States and has been documented in people as young as 12. For this reason, multiple government agencies like the DEA and FDA provide guidance for safely disposing of unused medications. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following:
- Use drug take-back events as your first choice. Many city or county governments hold these events throughout the year to safely dispose of unused medications. National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is an annual event the DEA supports. For 2023, the event was on Oct. 28 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The first 2024 event will take place in April, but the DEA hasn’t announced the specific date yet.
- Take these steps for household disposal of medications:
- Remove all medications from the original bottles or packaging.
- Mix the medication with cat litter, coffee grounds, or another substance to make the medication less desirable, and place the mixture in a sealed container or bag.
- Be sure to remove any personal identification information, like name and prescription number, from the medication packaging using a permanent marker or another method.
- Place the container with the mixture and empty medication packaging in your regular trash.
Some types of medication will require special handling for disposal. For example, medical professionals use fentanyl patches to deliver medication through the skin, and they still contain opioid pain medication after use. You should flush these patches after use as per the manufacturer’s instructions. For a more sustainable way of disposal, Christopher Norman, a geriatric nurse practitioner based in New York, noted you can neutralize these patches in cat litter and coffee grounds as well.
“Anytime you’re removing a patch medication, it’s a good idea to wear gloves while doing so,” added Norman. “Albeit unlikely, as these medications are meant to absorb through the skin, they can absorb through your skin, too, when handling them. This is especially true of nitroglycerin, which people might have on their skin to manage chest pain.”
Also, inhalers to treat lung disease can become dangerous if punctured or placed in a fire. You should dispose of inhalers by following the manufacturer’s instructions along with any local regulations.
Oral chemotherapy has become more common in home care and is considered hazardous to handle. You should follow the prescribing provider’s and manufacturer’s safe handling guidelines to prevent exposure.
Here are the steps for properly disposing of oral chemotherapy medication:
- Wash your hands with warm soap and water
- Put on a pair of disposable nitrile gloves
- Carefully remove the medication from its container and wrap it in a paper towel
- Place the paper towel in a resealable plastic bag
- Remove the gloves by flipping them inside out and placing them in the resealable plastic bag with the medication
- Dispose of the resealable plastic bag in your household trash container (be sure a bag is lining the container)
- Finish by washing your hands with soap and water
Do’s and don’ts of medication disposal
- Do: check with your local pharmacy, police department, and health care organizations for disposal options in your area. Some areas provide medication mail-back service so you don’t have to transport the medication yourself.
- Do: check with your local rules and regulations for medication disposal, as some areas prohibit methods like flushing.
- Don’t: give unused medication to anyone. Sharing prescription medication for non-recreational use is common. Only registered pharmacies can distribute medications to people who have a prescription.
- Don’t: flush medications down the toilet or in the sink unless the accompanying medication information states this is safe. You can consult the Flush List by the FDA for guidance.
- Don’t: dispose of medications in their original containers with personal and medication identifiers.
- Don’t: leave disposed medications, even those mixed as noted above, in your outdoor trash containers for long periods of time. You should place them in the receptacle as close to trash collection as possible to prevent people or animals from gaining access.
We spoke about the importance of proper medication disposal with Kameka Totten, DNP, RN, MBA, MHA, NE-BC, vice president of Nursing West Campus at AuthoraCare Collective in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Our RN case managers provide a copy of our organization’s written policies and procedures on the management and disposal of prescription medications to the patients and families upon admission to our services. We ensure that our patients and families receive proper instructions regarding the safe use and disposal of all medications, and we document this education along with the patient and families’ understanding in the patient’s clinical record.” Ask for your home health agency’s policies and procedures on medication disposal if not provided.
Norman added, “Once medications are dispensed to you, they’re officially ‘yours,’ so many organizations will say they’re not obligated to take them back. Many in-home hospice organizations WILL actually dispose of medications for you after a loved one has died while under their care.”
What to do with major medical equipment
Durable medical equipment (DME) includes oxygen machines, wheelchairs, canes, walkers, hospital beds, pressure-reducing mattresses, and patient lifting devices. You can rent and return many of these items when you no longer need them.
According to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) guidelines, if you rent some equipment and complete 13 rental payments, you may own the equipment. Be sure to check with the rental agency to see if this option is available. When you purchase the equipment, you may be able to return, donate, resell, or recycle the items.
Some manufacturers allow you to return equipment through the original store to refurbish and resell the items. In general, any equipment you rent should be returned as soon as possible to avoid additional charges.
You may donate medical equipment through several nonprofit organizations or local charities. For help finding the organizations that provide this service in your community, contact local home care and nursing facilities. For example, donations may be accepted at local churches, hospitals, assisted living facilities, and doctor’s offices. Many community-based long-term care programs will also accept DME donations. You can find one through the National Pace Association. Here are some other organizations accepting equipment donations:
- Goodwill Industries International: Check with your local location to see if you can bring medical equipment donations.
- The Salvation Army: Thrift stores for this organization may accept medical equipment donations. Call your local store and see what equipment they will accept as a donation.
- United Way Worldwide: Many locations accept medical equipment and supplies.
- Medical Equipment Bank: Located in Washington state, this organization accepts donations for many types of equipment like bath safety devices, hospital beds, patient lifts, canes, walkers, wheelchairs (manual and power), scooters, and oxygen equipment.
- Transitional Workforce Training (TWT): Located in California, and formerly American Mobility Outreach, this organization continues to accept and distribute power wheelchairs. TWT provides assistance for people with barriers to employment through career guidance, mentoring, and support.
- You Cane Give Initiative: All types of new or used mobility canes are welcome donations for this organization.
- MED-EQ The Medical Equipment Donation Agency: Donations accepted include bandages, syringes, catheter supplies, wheelchairs, crutches, and hospital beds.
- Project C.U.R.E.: You can collect and ship medical equipment and supply donations worldwide to under-resourced organizations in developing countries through Project C.U.R.E.
- MedShare: Hospitals, corporations/manufacturers, and individuals can make medical donations through MedShare.
- Wheels for Wishes: Donated wheelchairs through this organization help benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
- ALS Association: You can donate power wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs, transport chairs, walkers, portable scooters, and other medical equipment to this organization to help those living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
- Devices 4 The Disabled (D4D): D4D will accept and refurbish DME donations and provide items to those in need free of charge.
- Living Hope Wheelchair Association: Here, you can donate manual and power wheelchairs, adult diapers, and catheters.
- Centers for Independent Living: These centers are community-based, cross-disability, non-profit organizations that are designed and operated by people with disabilities. CILs are unique in that they operate according to a strict philosophy of consumer control, wherein people with all types of disabilities directly govern and staff the organization. CILs provide: peer support, information and referral, individual and systems advocacy; independent living skills training, and transition counseling.
Local churches and assisted-living facilities may also accept wheelchairs and other equipment donations. You may also want to consider neighbors or friends with older adult parents.
Organizations like All States M.E.D. purchase used medical equipment to refurbish and resell throughout the organization’s different locations. Online shopping portals are also a good place to list medical equipment for sale. Websites like Craigslist, eBay, LetGo, and Facebook marketplace have categories specific to medical equipment and supplies. You can also look for Buy Nothing groups on Facebook, which accept donations.
If you decide to discard any medical equipment, check to see if the equipment has any recyclable components. For example, many areas have options for mattress recycling and may pick these up free of charge.
Canes or walkers may be made of aluminum, commonly recycled and often paid for by the pound. If your area has a medical equipment recycling center, they can clarify what you can and can’t recycle.
For power wheelchairs, you must remove the battery and dispose of these following your local laws and regulations. In fact, most municipal waste management services won’t take batteries or bulky items. Companies specializing in cleanup and disposal could be an option to come and remove all of the medical equipment for a fee. An average starting fee of $100 for large equipment removal was quoted from some local companies in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. Additional fees could apply based on the distance and the amount of equipment or supplies to be removed.
As a last resort, simply throwing the equipment away is a solution for disposal. Leaving items at the curb for trash day pickup may also be an option. Contact your waste management service to ensure you are in compliance with the equipment you decide to throw away.
What to do with medical supplies
With long-term care, an abundance of medical supplies may be left over as needs change or the care recipient has died. For example, personal protective equipment (PPE), like gloves, gowns, masks, and adult briefs, can be costly, and you may want to hang on to these items. If you don’t use these items, consider donating them before disposing them.
When we spoke about medical supplies, Totten said, “Depending upon what type of medical supplies the patients or families have and whether they are unused or unopened, we can accept certain items back. Otherwise, these unused or unopened supplies can be donated if the patient or family would like to do so.”
Many of the organizations we mentioned as options for donating medical equipment will also take medical supplies. Other organizations potentially accepting medical supplies and equipment include :
- Free clinics
- Food banks
- Churches or other places of worship
- Local agencies on aging
- Veterans of Foreign Wars
- American Legion
- Diaper banks
Dispose of most used or soiled supplies in your regular household trash. In general, wound care dressings and other potentially infectious items should be double-bagged when disposed of. Discard sharps in an FDA-cleared container obtained from your local pharmacy or medical supply store. If you don’t have sharps containers, you can place needles and other supplies in a heavy-duty plastic container like those used for laundry detergents. Once full, put the closed container in the trash.
Some areas recycle paper medical supplies and oxygen tubing. If unopened and unused, you may be able to return oxygen tubing with rented oxygen equipment.
Legal and ethical considerations
Medical equipment can cost several thousand dollars, particularly with power wheelchairs and patient lifts. Donations of these items may carry some liability if someone is injured using the equipment. Before donating, check for any inspection or maintenance requirements. If in doubt, recycling or disposal may be better options for these items.
The bottom line
Deciding what to do with leftover medical supplies can be stressful. Programs are available to help you donate or recycle unused items. In addition, selling medical equipment can be a way to recoup some of the cost.
Proper disposal of medications can prevent unauthorized or accidental use, potentially resulting in illness or death. Medical equipment often contains recyclable materials and batteries, requiring additional consideration when disposing. Of course, donating medical supplies like protective equipment (PPE), wound care, and other items can lessen the cost burden for others. Ultimately, donating, selling, recycling, or disposing unused equipment and supplies is your responsibility. We hope following this guide will help you make an informed decision about which steps to take in this process.
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- Medicare.gov. What’s Home Health Care? Found on the internet at https://www.medicare.gov/what-medicare-covers/whats-home-health-care
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Safely Using Sharps (Needles and Syringes) at Home, at Work and on Travel. Nov. 19, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/consumer-products/safely-using-sharps-needles-and-syringes-home-work-and-travel
- U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Diversion Control Division. Drug Disposal Information. Found on the internet at https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. What Is the Scope of Prescription Drug Misuse in the United States? June 2020. Found on the internet at https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). How to Dispose of Medicines Properly. Dec. 8, 2022. Found on the internet at https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2015-06/documents/how-to-dispose-medicines.pdf
- U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Diversion Control Division. National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. Found on the internet at https://www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/index.html
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Where and How to Dispose of Unused Medicines. April 21, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/where-and-how-dispose-unused-medicines
- Huff C. Oral Chemotherapy: A Home Safety Educational Framework for Healthcare Providers, Patients, and Caregivers. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing. February 2020. Found on the internet at https://www.ons.org/cjon/24/1/oral-chemotherapy-home-safety-educational-framework-healthcare-providers-patients-and
- Beyene K., et al. Prescription Medication Sharing: A Systematic Review of the Literature. American Journal of Public Health. April 2014. Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4025682
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Drug Disposal: FDA’s Flush List for Certain Medicines. Oct. 1, 2020. Found on the internet at https://www.fda.gov/drugs/disposal-unused-medicines-what-you-should-know/drug-disposal-fdas-flush-list-certain-medicines#FlushList
- Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). Medicare Claims Processing Manual Chapter 20 – Durable Medical Equipment, Prosthetics, Orthotics, and Supplies (DMEPOS). May 2, 2023. Found on the internet at https://www.cms.gov/Regulations-and-Guidance/Guidance/Manuals/Downloads/clm104c20.pdf