A recent study by Helsinki Region Environmental Services HSY shows that many people still dispose of their medicines incorrectly. Particularly young people dispose of expired or unused medicines by simply binning them or flushing them down the drain. Older people, on the other hand, most often return such medicines to a pharmacy, which is the correct way. Expired and unused medicines 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.
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 HSY in late 2021–early 2022.
Largest need for improvement among young people
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 than others. 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.
It is important for the environment that everyone routinely returns their unused and expired medicines to a pharmacy. Young people should be made more aware of the ease and importance of the appropriate disposal of medicines, says environmental specialist Elina Tanner from HSY.
Development Manager Taina Nystén from the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) points out that 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 pharmaceutical 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.
Returning medicines to a pharmacy is easy
In Finland, there are over 800 collection points at pharmacies for the easy disposal of pharmaceutical waste even when there is no other need to visit a pharmacy. The average distance of people living in urban Finland to the nearest pharmacy is two kilometres. If necessary, the pharmacy personnel will provide instructions on where the medicines should be left and give any other necessary information regarding them.
The Lääkkeetön Itämeri campaign, which is now carried out for the fifth time, encourages Finns to return any expired and unused medicines to a pharmacy. 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.
Concern for our waterbodies and the Baltic is great. Our aim is that, in the future, everyone in Finland will return any expired and unused medicines to a pharmacy. Sustainable habits help us protect our environment and keep it in good condition from one generation to the next, says Brand Manager Elina Aaltonen from the Association of Finnish Pharmacies.
The Lääkkeetön Itämeri campaign is an annual joint effort of several organisations. The campaign is carried out by communications agency Kaiku, and this year it has been enabled by 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.