From words to action for the environment -this is what it requires

Growing up by the sea in East Helsinki and immersed in the subject of sustainability as I am in my work, I have always found nature close and important. I have thought long and hard about what is needed to prevent waste that does not belong in the environment from ending up there unnecessarily.

I work for Orion, so the type of waste I think about most is pharmaceutical waste. When the active pharmaceutical ingredients end up in the wrong place, they can be harmful to the environment and thus hazardous waste.

I have summarised a path of environmental actions into three important steps: 1) we must be able to identify what is hazardous waste; 2) we must understand what to do with it; and 3) we must know how to reduce the amount of hazardous waste.

1. Packaging also matters

Medicines are a complex thing. It is important to always take our medicines as prescribed by our doctor and as instructed on the package. At the same time, it must be recognized that a substance designed to have a positive impact on human health may also have an unpredictable effect on the environment. Therefore, unnecessary exposure of the environment to medicinal products should be minimized.

As a pharmaceutical manufacturer, Orion carries out risk-based identification of its hazardous waste – wastewater containing pharmaceutical residues – at its own plants and processes it correctly. Orion also provides guidance to its partners and to patients on this issue.

The issue is complicated for consumers as it is not only the pills or liquids that they need to think about, but also the packaging. Recycling is very important, but only packaging that has not been in contact with liquid medicine is suitable for recycling. It is important to remember this when recycling the packaging.

In other words, only completely empty and dry packaging can be recycled according to its material – and rinsing any liquid residues from the packaging down the drain is not a solution either. Even small quantities such as these must be prevented from ending up in the environment.

2. Wastewater treatment plants do not remove all pharmaceutical residues

Hazardous waste is no longer hazardous when it has been sorted and treated properly. As consumers, we have an excellent system that is free-of-charge that means that we can return unused and expired medicines to a pharmacy, and this is something that we should all be prepared to do. It is something that most people do, which is great!

However, why nearly one fifth of Finns still dispose of their medicines by throwing them into the bin, or down the toilet or sink? Putting it simply, disposing of a medicine by throwing it down the toilet or into the sea are pretty much the same thing.

Many assume that wastewater treatment plants can recover all waste. However, the cleaning process only has certain abilities, which are limited in the case of pharmaceutical waste. Therefore, whenever we can, we must cut off pharmaceutical waste streams early on, even before it gets as far as the wastewater treatment plant. And this is done by taking those expired medicines to a pharmacy.

Every single person who works in the pharmaceutical industry must find the energy to keep repeating this over and over again.

3. Only the medicines you need

Preventing pharmaceutical waste at an early stage is the smart thing to do. At Orion, we have invested heavily on the treatment of our wastewater, for example, and in our processes we focus on getting things right straight away.

It is important to reserve only as much medicine as you need at home and only the medicines you use to avoid surplus and expired medicines.

The packaging size is also important. When a doctor prescribes a new medicine, it is a good idea to choose a smaller packaging size to begin with rather than the biggest one. Then, if you need to switch medication, only the minimum amount of waste will be generated.

Employee benefit unmatched

I am fortunate to work in the area of sustainability in a company whose operations have a big impact. In addition to this, I can also influence and play a role in creating a more sustainable tomorrow through my work. What an amazing benefit this is!

Perhaps the most delightful recent example of what we have achieved comes from Hanko, where the production experts at the Fermion plant have succeeded in cutting nitrogen emissions – and they have done this by using ethanol, which would otherwise be taken to Riihimäki as waste. This is the circular economy at its best, when the waste of one is the raw material of the other.

Green chemistry is also a source of pride at Orion. This is another way of reducing hazardous waste. The principle is implemented throughout our processes when we consider the possibilities of influencing and selecting the inherently more harmless substances and most effective processes.

We are inundated with new information all the time and we try to increase our understanding of environmental impacts together with other partners. Collaboration, sharing of information and continuous improvement are at the core of everything.

Everyone can play their part with their own choices and thus take steps towards a healthier environment.


Noora Paronen
Head of Corporate Responsibility


24 August 2021