Drug residues can be reduced at every stage of a product life cycle

Medicines are an important part of our lives and wellbeing, and we struggle to imagine a world without them. Unfortunately, however, human activities tend to leave imprints in the natural environment, and medicines are no exception: they leave residues. A major portion of the residues ends up in the natural environment through waterways.

According to estimates, 88% of drug residues come from consumption of pharmaceutical products, while 10% come from the incorrect disposal of obsolete and unused medicines and 2% from production processes.

Pharmaceuticals do not belong in nature. This is why Orion works continuously to apply all available methods to reduce the amount of drug residues its processes release into the environment.

Orion only has the power to change its own processes. And yet, while Orion’s relative share of global residues is small, the drug concentrations in point emissions are very significant. Fortunately, our awareness, skills and tools to tackle the issue have improved considerably in the past ten years.

At Orion, life cycle thinking starts with product development, where we carry out strict environmental risk assessments. We source our raw materials from suppliers we know to be reliable and whom we evaluate on a risk-based and systematic basis, for example, through onsite inspections. And we are not alone: Orion takes part in an international PSCI initiative to work together with other operators in the field for improved sustainability of pharmaceutical supply chains.

Through extensive long-term investments we are committed to wastewater management in all our facilities. The process is currently based on separate sewerage: we separate wastewater with high-risk pollutants from the rest of the wastewater and divert it to a separate plant for treatment. The excess water is evaporated in an energy-efficient way and the residue is incinerated. With this method, we are able to completely destroy drug residues.

The point is to get it right in one – simply and efficiently. This method allows us to reduce waste with minimum logistics. We have set ourselves high environmental goals and we are pursuing them with determination. For example, in 2019 we switched to using 100% green electricity at our factories and successfully implemented a series of energy saving projects.

This means that most of our drug residues end up in the natural environment through blackwater and greywater as a result of the consumption rather than the production of pharmaceuticals. The issue is problematic because, on balance, it is important that people take the medicines they are prescribed. Consumers should not be expected to make their own choices in the matter.

Orion has limited opportunities on its own to influence this chain, so the role of stakeholder cooperation is crucial. We are constantly striving to raise awareness, share knowledge and collaborate to find solutions. 

The quality of guidance and advice is important: the correct use of medicines alone helps reduce misuse or unnecessary use. Our staff is happy to advise healthcare professionals in the practical use of our medicinal products. Appropriate labelling and package information is also essential in ensuring that medicines are used and disposed of appropriately.

All too often, the life cycle of medicines ends with their disposal as obsolete or unused medicines, which puts an unnecessary burden on the environment. Medicines should never be thrown into mixed waste or put down the drain. They should always be taken to a pharmacy.

Prescribing and ordering practical package sizes means that customers do not buy unnecessarily large quantities. Our packages contain information on how to dispose of medicines correctly, and similar information is also available on our website.

Orion works together with pharmacies and other stakeholders to inform and educate the public about the correct disposal of medicines. For example, we are the main partner of the John Nurminen Foundation’s #OURSEA campaign to support the preservation of the Baltic Sea. To our delight, the Moomins have also joined the campaign, to mark their 75th anniversary.

The presence of drug residues in natural waters is a sum of many factors. Therefore, we need many tools and methods to fight it. We can celebrate how our common love of nature has inspired so many individuals, businesses – and the Moomins – to work together to preserve our seas.

Originally published in Finnish in the Vesitalous-magazine (2/2020)