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Reducing medicine waste to help the environment

Minimising and properly handling pharmaceutical waste are essential to help the environment – and we can all play our part, reminds Katja Tolkki, Head of Sustainability, in her blog post.


When selecting and collecting an over-the-counter medicine from a pharmacy, what is your main concern? Almost certainly it is the medicine’s effectiveness. But what if you could choose between two medicines containing the same active ingredients, but one has an ecolabel to show its sustainability?

In contrast to many other consumer goods, currently there is no system in Finland to assess the environmental impacts of medicines. However, important initiatives to produce relevant information include SUDDEN, a research project assessing environmental impacts during the whole life cycle of pharmaceuticals, and CWPharma that has investigated concentrations of medicine residues in the Baltic Sea. Additionally, the Pharmaceutical Information Centre is developing an environmental classification for healthcare.

Medicines contain a paradox: as products they are designed to improve people’s health, but when ending up in the environment they can be harmful to species and ecosystems. Therefore, minimising and properly handling pharmaceutical waste are essential to help the environment – and we can all play our part.

It is important to ensure proper waste handling in pharmaceutical production, but few of us think about the medicine residues that go down the drain after passing through our bodies, or in the shower, or about medicines thrown in the bin. We therefore need efforts from companies, the pharmaceutical sector and consumers to prevent medicine residues from ending up in the environment. For example, CWPharma’s June 2021 recommendations to improve the Baltic Sea situation include legislation, improving wastewater treatment and raising general awareness of the proper disposal of medicine waste.1

Pharmaceutical sector is already advancing safe and environmentally friendly medicine usage in many ways, including helping consumers to make responsible choices. Pharmaceutical companies cut medicine waste by optimising the sizes of product packages and by offering patient support programmes for such medicines whose users benefit from individual support. This enhances adherence to treatment and reduces the premature discontinuation of prescribed courses of medication. Pharmacies are advising people on the correct usage of medicines, and collecting medicine waste from households. A person who has many medicines simultaneously in use benefits from a dose-dispensing service since there are no extra medicine packages piling up at home, but exactly the right amount of medicines in single-dose pouches.

In the future, when the environmental classification progresses and becomes available for consumers, conscious choices will become easier. Until then we can all prevent medicine waste from being generated or affecting the environment.

How to minimise medicine waste at home:

  • Buy medicines only when needed.
  • Start a new medication with the smallest possible package.
  • Complete courses of medication according to the doctor’s prescription – discontinuation of medication can also renew or prolong the condition.
  • If you are taking various medicines daily, consider dose dispensing. This gives you exactly the right amount of medicines needed, and is delivered in single-dose pouches to your home.

1 CWPharma: press release 21 June 2021

Katja Tolkki works as Head of Sustainability at Oriola.

This text is originally published on the Medicine-free Baltic Sea (Lääkkeetön Itämeri) campaign site. The campaign encourages people to return unused or expired medicines to pharmacies, since if thrown in the bin or drain they may end up in the environment.