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Consumers have much to improve in correct disposal of expired medicines

According to a recent study, many people and particularly young people have much to improve in disposing of expired or unused medicines. Pharmaceutical waste should always be returned to a pharmacy, as they burden the environment and may end up in the wrong hands if thrown in the bin or flushed down the drain, reminds a Finnish campaign to protect the Baltic Sea. Oriola is one of the participants in the campaign.


According to a recent survey, almost a third (28%) of the residents in the Helsinki metropolitan area do not return unused or expired medicines to a pharmacy. The survey also shows that women take their pharmaceutical waste to a pharmacy much more often than men. A total of 1,002 persons between the ages of 16 and 65 living in the Helsinki metropolitan area participated in the survey conducted by Helsinki Region Environmental Services HSY in late 2021–early 2022.

Of the young respondents (aged 16–30), 14% primarily throw pharmaceutical waste into the bin and 4% flush it down the drain. Young people also keep unused medicines at home more often than others and return them to a pharmacy less frequently. This may be due to the fact that the youngest respondents were the least aware of the correct way to dispose of medicines and chemicals. Furthermore, the respondents aged 16–30 felt more often than others that recycling and disposal is difficult and takes too much effort.

According to Development Manager Taina Nystén from the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), medicines thrown in the bin or flushed down the drain may end up in the soil, lakes and rivers and the Baltic Sea, increasing the amount of medical substances in them. For example, wastewater treatment plants are not designed for the removal of pharmaceutical residues.

“In Finland, all pharmaceutical waste from human or animal health care and households is classified as hazardous waste. Medicines have been developed to be effective in small doses, which is why even a small amount of pharmaceutical waste can damage the environment. Damage caused by pharmaceutical waste includes hormonal and behavioural disorders in organisms. In the environment, pharmaceutical waste can also increase antibiotic resistance, i.e. the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That’s why expired and unused medicines should be returned to a pharmacy,” says Nystén.

Everyone can prevent medicine waste from generating

The Lääkkeetön Itämeri (Medicine free Baltic Sea) campaign, which is now carried out for the fifth time, encourages Finns to return any expired and unused medicines to a pharmacy. In Finland, there are over 800 collection points at pharmacies for the easy disposal of pharmaceutical waste. This year, the campaign focuses particularly on encouraging young people to dispose of medicines correctly. The campaign also aims to increase awareness of the strain that medicines put on the environment when disposed of incorrectly. Oriola is participating in the industry-wide campaign as part of its corporate sustainability programme.

“We promote sustainable and safe medicine use in our daily operations. Our pharmacy employees in Sweden advice people on medicine usage and deliver pharmaceutical waste returned to our pharmacies for proper disposal. The most effective way to prevent pharmaceutical waste from ending up in the environment is to minimise it. Everyone can contribute to this by purchasing medicines only when needed and completing courses of medication according to the doctor’s prescription. Dose dispensing is a good option to reduce pharmaceutical waste for those who have many medicines simultaneously in use,” says Sanna Veräjänkorva, Sustainability Manager at Oriola.

The campaign is carried out by communications agency Kaiku, and its participants are the Association of Finnish Pharmacies, GSK, HSY, Pharma Industry Finland, Orion, Oriola, Pihlajalinna, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE (campaign expert), Tamro, Yliopiston Apteekki and the Ministry of the Environment.

Checklist: How to dispose of medicines correctly

1. What medicines should be returned to a pharmacy?

The following should be returned to a pharmacy: used medicated plasters, solid and liquid medicines, inhalers, tablets and capsules, and tubes still containing medicine.

2. How to sort medicines?

  • Take the tablets and capsules out of their packaging and put them in a transparent bag. In the case of blister packs, there is no need to remove the tablets or capsules from the foil strip.
  • Put creams, aerosols and inhalers in the bag without the instruction label.
  • Fold medicated plasters with the adhesive surfaces facing each other before putting the plasters in the bag.
  • Leave liquid medicines in their original bottle and put the bottles in a separate bag.
  • Remove the instruction label from the plastic and cardboard packaging and sort the waste.

Always sort the following separately:

  • Medicine containing iodine (packed in a separate bag in the original packaging).
  • Cytostatics (packed in a separate bag in the original packaging).
  • Syringes and needles (packed in an impermeable container, which can be a bottle or jar, for example). Ask your pharmacist how to dispose of insulin needles in your area.
  • Pack mercury thermometers in a separate bag for disposal.

3. What does not need to be returned?

For example, basic creams, dietary supplements or natural products do not need to be returned to a pharmacy. Dispose of them as mixed waste.

Follow the campaign which takes place from 22 August to 5 September 2022: (in Finnish)
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