Finns are active recyclers of empty bottles and old newspapers. Construction waste is also sorted scrupulously, because mixed waste is expensive for construction sites.
A typical Saturday morning at a Finnish home: The back of the car has been turned into a recycling point where empty bottles, old newspapers and magazines and empty milk and yoghurt cartons wait for transportation to the nearest supermarket. The family receives a refund on each returned bottle (10–40 cents) and the newspapers and recyclable packages are left at the recycling point in the supermarket parking lot.
The more waste the family recycles, the less waste is left in the waste bin outside their house – which means less work for the garbage truck.
Recycling is even easier for the residents of apartment buildings, because their waste sorting and collection is arranged by their housing company and the expense is included in the maintenance charge. However, even apartment dwellers have to return their empty bottles to the store themselves.
“Thanks to the deposit–refund system, almost 100 per cent of bottles are recycled in Finland. The same applies to paper, but then again, the recycling of paper has long traditions in the paper industry”, says Sirje Stén, Senior Inspector at the Ministry of the Environment.
These figures stand scrutiny, but the targets of waste management and recycling are more ambitious.
The recycling of leftover food differs between cities.
For example, the city of Jyväskylä in Central Finland requires each house to have its own bio-waste container or compost, whereas in the Helsinki metropolitan area, the same requirement applies only to housing companies with five or more households.
“The sorting of waste by households is not really monitored; it is based on people separating their waste voluntarily”, Stén says.
Municipalities help in the recycling of hazardous waste.
In addition to stationary collection points, garbage trucks drive around Finnish suburbs once or twice a year, collecting, among other things, empty batteries and paint tins.
Mixed waste is expensive
How do companies take care of their waste management? For example, what happens at construction sites?
Jari Hovilehto, YIT Project Manager, says that waste management is part of the daily business at construction sites. The sites are bound by waste legislation, in addition to which sorting waste properly saves money.
“There are separate pallets for different types of waste at construction sites. We sort mixed waste, energy waste, wood, soil, stone, metals and hazardous waste”, Hovilehto says.
The more we produce mixed waste at the construction site, the more we have to pay for its disposal at landfill.
Recycling enters the picture already at the planning stage. Each housing company must have its own waste sorting facilities and each apartment must be equipped with a kitchen cabinet that has separate bins for recyclable waste. Usually, the cabinet is located under the sink and has four sections for different types of waste.
“The housing company’s waste collection point can be located in a dedicated room, in a waste shelter or close to the parking lot or another location the residents regularly pass through.”
Hovilehto thinks recycling should be as easy as possible, so that people would welcome it as part of their everyday lives.
One third of all waste is recycled
Producing less waste is the top priority in the Finnish and EU waste legislation. In other words, efficient use of materials should be taken into account in the production of goods.
“This is something we still have to improve on. The quantities of waste are on the increase”, Stén notes.
One third of all waste in Finland is disposed of at landfills, one third is recovered as energy and one third is recycled. The aim is to increase the recycling rate to 50 per cent by 2016.
“Considering the targets, recycling has not become widespread enough. Several new waste-to-energy plants have been constructed in Finland in recent years. While recovering waste as energy is a good thing, it also means wasting materials that could be recycled”, Stén explains.
The spread of recycling is also slowed down by the fact that Finland is a sparsely populated country. Logistics is harder to arrange here than, for example, in the more densely populated Central Europe where more recyclable material can be collected from shorter distances.
“People could recycle more actively, but achieving the ambitious targets also requires a functional system and structures that make recycling easy.”
This is where legislation can help. If, for example, a washing machine breaks down, its vendor is liable to accept the broken machine back and see to its recycling. The recycling costs are included in appliance prices and thus, the consumer has already paid for the recycling.
The polluter pays principle
A comprehensive waste management system is not free. Who pays for it?
“Of course, waste management is not free, but a functional waste management system is an integral element of a civilized society. In Finland, waste management is governed by the “polluter pays” principle. Waste management is part of environmental protection, playing its role in the battle against excess consumption and the contamination of nature.”
Stén says the principle is also based on the idea that if we have enough money to buy the products, we also have enough money to pay for the waste management expenses.
The municipalities arrange waste management for their residents and collect the money as waste charges. The amount of waste charge is determined by the quantity of waste. For example, the amount invoiced by the city of Helsinki for each waste collection visit is 6–10 euros. Typically, waste bins are emptied once every one or two weeks.
Companies are responsible for their own waste management and they can put it out to tender among service providers in the field.
The costs of waste management can also be covered by producer responsibility, in other words, by including waste management fees in product prices.
Does the sorting point compromise the atmosphere of the yard?
Do Finns mind the recycling facilities occupying parts of their yards? Does the smell of garbage disturb them?
No and no. Waste management can be arranged smartly, and clever solutions are becoming increasingly common, especially in new housing developments.
For example, the architect of the YIT location on Vallikatu, Espoo, designed a handsome wooden wall around the sorting point.
Taking waste to the sorting point is easy when the point is located next to the street and the garage.
And when the waste bins are emptied regularly, the smell is not a problem.
Suction or underground waste management?
The housing companies constructed by YIT typically feature bins that are located in waste rooms or shelters.
Some newly-built, large residential areas have adopted regional waste suction systems. In suction waste management, the waste is vacuum-suctioned to waste terminal containers through an underground pipe, from where it continues its journey in trucks.
Only one pipe per housing company/building is needed, because the suction system only handles one type of waste at a time and the waste stays separated.
In underground waste management, the bins are located largely underground. They are emptied by lifting the durable sack through the upper opening. The sack itself is emptied from the bottom.
There are no smells, because the coolness of the ground slows down bacterial growth.
The principles of waste management in Finland
- Reducing the amount of waste is the first priority.
- If waste is produced, it should be prepared for re-use.
- If waste cannot be re-used, it must primarily be recycled as material and secondarily recovered as energy.
- Waste may only be disposed of at landfills when its recovery is not technically or economically feasible.
Source: The Ministry of the Environment
Five recycling tips for households
- When you buy a new product, think about the waste you are buying with it. Do not buy more food than you will eat. Avoid buying over-packaged products.
- Make recycling as easy as possible. Engage the whole family in it and teach your children not to waste natural resources.
- Mark your waste bins clearly: have separate bins for cardboard, newspaper, food waste, bottles and glass.
- If there is no waste sorting point in your municipality, raise a request.
- Do not throw away things – such as clothes – that are in good shape but no longer of use to you. Organise a flea market or a clothes swap in your neighbourhood.