Circular economy, turning waste into treasure

  On a drizzly December morning, the frozen streets of Helsinki were impassable. The 11-year-old Mingying Huo sat securely indoors, leaning down in front of a microscope. Her classmates were busy with other tasks: interviewing the mayor for a local TV show, visiting the power company, and stocking up at the grocery store. As a “researcher” at Borealis, a plastic recycling company, Mingying Huo is busy analyzing plastic wrap under a microscope. “I think this work is very important,” she said. “Plastic will take a long time to disappear, so it’s better to find other uses for it than to throw it away.”
  Mingying Huo and her classmates that day I am participating in a project called “Me and My City”. The project, which aims to help Finnish school-aged children learn about various jobs, has 13 learning centres across the country and is funded by the Confederation of Finnish Industry and the Finnish government. Each learning center simulates a city, with students acting as workers in different industries such as banking, medical care, and fashion design. The “My City and Me” project was launched in 2010, and today 83% of sixth-graders in Finland participate every year, and since 2017, in addition to experiencing the corporate culture and learning about the progressive tax system, the program also includes circular Economics, such as the work that Mingying Huo participated in.

At Newland Kindergarten in Helsinki, Wojci encourages children to think about new uses for old furniture.

  As natural resources are depleted and the climate crisis worsens, the concept of a “circular economy” is gaining global attention. Modern economies are mostly linear and follow a “take, make, waste” model: valuable elements of natural resources are converted into products, and the rest, plus products that have lost their use value, are discarded as garbage. In a circular economy, existing products are transformed directly into new products without consuming natural resources and without generating any waste.
  More and more regions and countries support the circular economy. The EU released an action plan for the transition to a circular economy in 2015, and in 2020 added a new plan to advance the European Green Deal, encouraging companies to design products with longer service lives and easier maintenance. In February, the European Parliament passed a resolution agreeing to do more to fully achieve a carbon-neutral circular economy by 2050. Some EU member states, including the Netherlands, have drafted similar plans at the national level.
  Among them, Finland stands out for its comprehensive action plan. Back in 2016, Finland became the first country to promote a circular economy nationwide. Last year, Finland imposed a cap on the extraction and use of natural resources. Like other countries, Finland supports companies innovating and upcycling in recycling (especially in the country’s important forestry industry), urging public procurement to prioritize products made from recycled materials, and trying to drastically reduce landfill volumes.
| Grab from a doll |

  The country of more than 5.5 million people has placed a strong emphasis on education from the start, hoping that young people will have a different view of the environment than their parents and grandparents. “People think it’s just about recycling, but in reality, it’s about rethinking everything – products, material development, how we consume, etc.,” said Nani Pajunen, an expert in sustainable research in Finland. , for change to take place at every level of society, education is key – for every Finn to understand the need for a circular economy and how to get involved.
  From the youngest generation in Finland, the idea of ​​a circular economy spread rapidly. In December last year, Lisa Wojic, the principal of Newland Kindergarten, sat on the floor with the children in the kindergarten, and there was a broken wooden chair and a fox doll in the room. Voych removed a loose chair leg and asked the children, “Are we throwing it away, or do we do something with it?” A boy rushed forward excitedly and tapped the chair, saying it could Be a drum. Another child put the removed chair leg to his mouth and said, “It can make a trumpet!”

In the classroom, Finnish children learn about sustainability through fox toys.

  Education in Finland is second to none in the world and is characterized by a focus on experiential learning (homework is almost non-existent). Circular economy learning content is solution-oriented and incorporated into formal education at all levels. In one middle school online class, for example, students were taught like an updated version of what Vojic taught in kindergarten: disassemble ballpoint pens or electronics and think about new uses for those materials.
  By the time these kids go to college, they will have enough basic training in the circular economy to apply the basic principles to advanced research. At Helsinki City University of Applied Sciences, students collaborate on projects aimed at solving real-world problems. For example, a course study group has spent the fall semester looking at how to create mini-circular economy communities by building repair shops, gardens and composting spots.
  Adult education has also begun to introduce circular economy. In 2018, Maja Ersch was thinking about her life. Growing up on a farm 88 kilometers north of Helsinki, she thought farming was neither promising nor environmentally friendly. “My farm is basically monoculture,” said Ersch, 26. Her family’s 100-hectare farm is mostly grain and has raised cattle before. “The soil is getting tighter and we’re using more fertilizer. I know it’s a problem, but I don’t know how to fix it,” she said.

The herd allows the farmer, Ersch, to achieve a regenerative agriculture model—not only taking from nature, but giving it back.

  Osch decided to sign up after learning that the Baltic Action Group, an environmental NGO, was offering a course on regenerative agriculture. She quickly realized that she could help solve the climate and biodiversity crises on her own farm.
  A year ago, Ersch bought the farm from his parents and set about changing his farming model. She still grows wheat and barley, but also plants 15 cover crops when she sows her grains in the spring, helping the soil restore nutrients and increasing the farm’s biodiversity. She has added new crops to her rotation and recently raised six cattle, whose main job now is to graze and feed the soil with their manure. Previously, Ersch was only concerned with the harvest of the land; but now, she has a broader vision, not only taking, but giving back. “Whenever I’m making a decision, I first look at the soil and microbial impact of this, to see if it’s going to bring about a positive change on the farm,” she said. “But the most important thing is a mindset shift.”

| Technological Innovation |

  Has Finland achieved a circular economy all over the country? By some standards, the answer is yes. A recent poll showed that 82% of Finns believe the circular economy will create more jobs. In addition, some Finnish cities have developed their own circular economy development plans. The Finnish forestry sector has also started to reform, a move that is crucial as 28% of Finland’s energy consumption comes from wood-based fuels. In 2020, Finland’s use of renewable energy exceeded that of fossil fuels for the first time.
  At the same time, more and more successful startups are taking a circular approach. Many companies are trying to convert forest products into new materials such as bioplastics, cardboard and textiles. In the birthplace of Nokia, many companies are also studying technology. For example, Exchange Pie, a company specializing in refurbishing old mobile phones, is one of Finland’s most successful start-ups in recent years. In 2016, the company’s founder, who was in his 20s at the time, aspired to make used mobile phones (with a global market share of less than 5%) as common as used cars (half of the auto market). “When we researched the market, we found that the biggest barrier was quality,” said Sammy Martinen, CEO of Switch Pie
  . From recycling old phones to repairs and refurbishments to advertising, every step in the production of Swap Pie is done at the Helsinki-based company. This approach is already paying off: the company’s revenue has grown from an initial €500,000 to €98 million in 2020, and the company has opened a second factory in Estonia. The company’s 1,100 employees, many from around the world, “come together because of a sense of purpose,” Martinen said. While research reports indicate that many customers buy Switch Pies because they’re cheap, there are also customers who share the company’s sense of purpose and think used phones are cooler than new ones.
  It’s not just start-ups that are practicing the circular economy. Finnish state-owned energy company Fortum Group is also adopting a circular development model, converting waste into energy and new materials through incineration. For example, household plastic waste is processed at the factory in Rijmaki into clean plastic clumps that can be reused.
  Fortum remains a major greenhouse gas emitter, but is entering the final stages of its transition to a carbon-neutral economy. Kale Sarima, deputy director of the waste recycling department at Fortum, said that when renewable energy completely replaces fossil fuels, raw materials for energy will no longer be scarce, because unlike coal and oil, the sun and wind are free. However, things that are now commonplace, such as cheap plastics and other hydrocarbons made from petroleum, will become scarce by then. He said: “If fossil fuels are completely phased out, how are these hydrocarbons made? A lot of people are looking into replacing them with bioplastics, and wood is one of the main sources of bioplastics, and what is the impact on living things? What? There may be no trees on Earth by then.” So Forton is working on a new technology to make hydrocarbons from the carbon dioxide produced during energy production. “We think this is the future of recycling – recycling carbon,” Sarima said.
| old idea |

  Finland still has a long way to go. While the country’s landfill volume has been drastically reduced to almost negligible levels over the past 20 years, the amount of waste generated per capita is higher than it was a few years ago, it’s just that it’s being turned into something else. “From this point of view, we are still in a linear development model. We have made progress in recycling, but we have not fully reversed the trend,” said Kari Helevy, director of the Finnish National Research and Development Fund’s circular economy program.
  Helsinki city center The three owners and chefs of Nora Restaurant think so too. When the restaurant opened in 2018, the selling point was “zero waste”: the wine glasses were transformed from juice bottles, and the syrup in the dip was made from vegetable and fruit peels. Chefs need to track down all non-recyclable waste, including leftovers from diners, and compost it all. But restaurateurs have found that the public does not necessarily approve of the practice. “They’ll think we’re using discarded or spoiled food as ingredients,” says restaurant owner Luca Barack. “It’s a matter of philosophy.”

The “Exchange Party” company held a meeting to discuss retrofitting old mobile phones.

Old mobile phone motherboards collected by “Swap Pie”

  Entrepreneur Amanda Ristren has witnessed Finland’s transition to a circular economy in recent years, but notes that older Finns may be skeptical. “Finland was poor in the 1950s, but has grown very quickly,” she says. “Generations of Finns have focused on expanding industry, and they have a hard time understanding that their or their parents’ life’s work could be A bad thing.”
| Echoes of Education |

  Finland wants to set an example for other countries. To this end, the Finnish National Research and Development Fund has issued guidelines to help other countries on their way to a circular economy, and has also partnered with the African Development Bank to help Africa transition to a circular economy. But Finland has its own unique conditions: a small population, strong political will, a strong entrepreneurial atmosphere, and well-developed education. Therefore, any country interested in following Finland’s lead should not only aim to eliminate landfills and invest in startups, but to open up the game. “From the feedback we’ve received, it’s clear that education has a global impact,” says Helewie. “We’ve believed from the beginning that education is at the heart of our development strategy, but education is only part of the overall Finnish development model and cannot be Separate from other aspects.”
  In fact, Finland’s development strategy is not immediate. Even in Finland, changing society by educating children is a long process. The Harms family is a good example. Mum Tina, 47, is a lawyer and considers herself “very concerned about sustainability”. Although she doesn’t know much about the term “circular economy”, she has a hobby of repairing furniture and intends to reduce household consumption all year round. These behaviors actually belong to the category of circular economy.
  Karin, the 19-year-old child of Tina, who, in contrast to her mother, said she was “all too familiar” with the circular economy. She was exposed to the circular economy in elementary school, consolidated it again in junior high school, and now her high school curriculum also includes relevant content. Like most of her friends, Karin used refurbished phones, bought clothes at second-hand stores, and successfully persuaded her family to recycle items. “Our family started recycling five years ago, and we didn’t have this habit before that,” Karin said. “But I told my family we really need to change.”
  Tina was initially hesitant. While their family has always had a habit of recycling newspapers and old bottles, sorting plastics is a more complicated job. Today, though, Tina jokes that they “almost have a plastic recycling center” in their basement. She said: “If the teenagers in the family are very obsessed with something, we as parents have to be positive, otherwise it will be too disappointing