Plastic Expert continue the Sustainable Cities series by looking at Helsinki. By exploring sustainable tourism and machine based recycling, we look at how the Fins making progress.

Whats on this page?

Tervetuloa! Or welcome, in Finnish…

Sustainable Tourism
To have a designed tourism strategy in itself is an indication that sustainability is an inherent concept in Helsinki. The Helsinki Tourism Strategy was born to emphasise the importance of CSR in tourism companies. When there are matters or events that are environmentally, socially or financially related, these companies have a duty to act responsibly. In 2009, the Helsinki City Tourist & Convention Bureau and many representatives of the tourism industry came together and signed the Helsinki declaration.
The decision makers in Helsinki have worked incredibly hard to promote greener methods of transport, and now Helsinki is a city that walks, cycles and uses public transport in a vast majority. In Helsinki, it’s possible to order an eco-taxi, which is a hybrid car. A lot of pressure is put on hotels to scrutinise their own carbon footprint, and this has led to ideas such a renting free bicycles to their guests. Another idea was to improve the quality of tap water over time so that it exceeded the quality of bottled water, which in most cases it does, so many hotels choose to serve tap water instead. Encouraging tourists to practice sustainable methods will allow the city to be respected and to push off onto higher sustainable ground. One of the city’s sustainability hubs also has a free download in their library which is well worth a read.

Sustainable Transport & Development
Finally, some cold, hard statistics. In a recent survey of 3,000 people, it was found that 34% of citizens walk, 32% use public transport and only 22% travel by car. The driving statistic is down from 27% in 2010. The survey also found that women ages 7-17 take the most trips out of the home on average. However men are twice as likely to drive a car into the city, as middle-aged women prefer public transport!
As well as being a Sustainable City by our definitions, it is widely recognised as a green city. There are 15 cities which all compete in the European Green Capital Award. Helsinki is yet to win this award, and targets a future victory by improving suburban public transport to reduce the use of cars in those areas. In fact, by 2025, Helsinki plans to eliminate cars altogether! They aren’t the only ones either, it seems that many cities are planning for a car-free future. Much like London’s upgrade to the Oyster card over the last couple of years, Helsinki are planning a ‘one method fits all’ payment system, ideally through mobile phones, that will pay for buses, trains, trams etc. Actually, it’s a bit better than that, the app-based idea will be like a map, journey planner and perhaps even social network all rolled into one. While shared bike schemes are becoming more popular and will be included too, it is also hoped that by 2025 driverless cars will have arrived!
Helsinki is not alone in their plan for a sustainable future, just look at this team they have built:
“Helsinki has been supported by EMBARQ, together with IDEO, who are working also with Mexico City. In both cases their strategy is to convene a group of transport experts, philanthropists, venture capitalists, bankers, technology gurus, telecommunications providers, marketers, and automakers to explore ‘what’s next’ for urban mobility. They then hope to build out, replicate, and scale the most transformative ideas that emerge.” (Source)
Sustainable development activists changed their Helsinki for the better, by drafting an alternative city plan at the same time the city was drawing up an official one. Based on the model of a similar scheme in Stockholm from 2012, they kept in the parameters of reality and applied the lessons of history to their designs. One of the main agendas was to leave Green spaces untouched, while allowing for a greater influx of new residents than the city’s drawings did. They were successful, creating a plan that allowed for half a million extra Helsinki inhabitants with green spaces ‘practically untouched’. Timo Hämäläinen started out as a blogger, but it now one of Helsinki’s leading voices in the search for a sustainable future. The council have admitted that the alternative city plans hold merit, and collaboration could happen in the future. (Source)

Recycling and Waste Management
In the Helsinki Action Plan for Sustainability, 2002, Waste Management and Recycling is split into three specific areas, which are outlined below.

  • The basic strategy for Helsinki waste management is the effective prevention of waste production and to reduce the amount of waste and hazardous waste for final placement at refuse tips. Helsinki works in cooperation with YTV, the Helsinki Metropolitan Area Council, which is charged with waste management in the metropolitan area, in all the different stages of the recycling of material in order to strengthen this principle. In accordance with the national waste plan the aim is to increase the degree of utilisation of household and building waste to 70% by 2005. Ways for making the reuse of construction components and materials more efficient will be investigated in cooperation with firms and organisations in the construction and waste management sector
  • The network of local collection points will be gradually augmented and extended to provide a sufficiently inclusive collection service for all categories of waste. Furthermore, improvements will be made to the visual aspects and user-convenience of the collection points. Fees and regulations concerning waste will be developed to make sorting and sending for utilization cheaper than for mixed waste.
  • The impact of waste and waste management on health and the environment will be reduced through more effective transportation and supervision. Guidance to enterprises, housing companies and households concerning waste will be developed in conjunction with other environmental and consumer guidance. The city and YTV will intensify cooperation with retailers on the organisation of recycling. Producers will be persuaded to make packaging and material markings clearer.

Our thoughts?
Part A looks at reducing waste and increasing recycling, especially in regards to household and construction waste. Of course, these are the two biggest areas of waste production, and with good organisation and education, the easiest to tackle. Studies into how construction waste can be better recycled is not just happening in Helsinki, it’s a global issue. In some part of the world, construction waste is being crushed and shredded and added to concrete mix in percentages that either benefit or don’t disrupt the stability of the concrete.
Household waste in Finland is being tackled pretty well, the residents are often keen recyclers and it is claimed by some that the recycling return of domestic plastic, glass and cans is as much as 90%. We’ve said before that recycling rates often mean diddly-squat, because the task of measurement is so monumental, but if the estimation is that high there must be a reason why, right? Well it’s simple, Pullo ja tölkkipaulautus. Ah yes, the famous Pullo ja tölkkipaulautus! For those of us that aren’t fluent in the Finnish tongue, that means Bottle and Can Return, as it is the name given to the brilliant reverse vending machines that really should be a norm on the planet, but for some reason aren’t yet. Seriously people, look how well they work!
Part B, now I’m not a huge fan of part B, because of this sole reason. Stop making recycling points prettier, it serves little purpose. People know that waste management is a dirty business, and making pretty bottle containers won’t change that. Just make them simple and accessible, spell it out to the user to allow no room for error. The great reality of Part B is the improvement of segregation and separation early in the recycling journey of materials, as it’s very easy for recyclables to get contaminated or lost in the system.
Part C is my favourite. Encouraging packaging producers to cut down on waste and to fund research into the human and environmental health effects of all this waste. Through learning about the damaging effects, people’s attitudes will change, as they have in Helsinki.

First person recycling
I’m going to go back and touch on the reverse vending machines idea. The result of these machines is that the streets remain very clean, with either the homeless or the earth conscious making an effort to exchange these drinks containers for cash. After a large street event, people are said to leave their recyclable waste sorted and near bins, but not in them. This helps the homeless make a small income and stops them having to dig through bins. Countries with a reverse vending system often have the quickest clean up turnaround times after outdoor events.
Now, not all bottles and cans are eligible for the reverse vending system, however they can go in the municipal recycling banks, which will still see them recycled. The eligible cans or bottles will have a Pantti/Pant message on them, telling the drinker how much they will earn for recycling it. This fee is a deposit, paid upon purchasing the drink, and is not costing anybody anything extra, if recycled. Glass bottle recycling has been going on in Helsinki for over 60 years, that’s decades longer than many countries have been recycling anything at all!
One big downside to Helsinki recycling? They are realists, and understand that plastic recycling is a difficult market, and very energy expensive. Instead of investing vast amounts into the sort of infrastructure that can handle nationwide plastic recycling, they encourage inhabitants to limit their use of plastic. Plastic bags have a charge and reverse vending machines can handle a great deal of waste. Plastic number two, HDPE, is often not recycled, that’s things like plastic milk jugs and fabric softener bottles. It’s often not clean enough to be recycled. When these plastics are recycled, it is often by small private companies with containers in supermarket car parks, rather than a national service. In fact, the national recycling service pretty much just avoids the question of plastic, as if it doesn’t exist.
Fancy a guess at how much money is raised annually from reverse vending machines in Finland? I will reveal at the end of this chapter.
Siivouspäivä / Cleaning Day
I absolutely love this idea, I think it should go global. Twice a year, the Helsinki residents hold a cleaning day, which means they are encouraged to clear out all the unnecessary stuff from their house and sell it on to someone else. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, after all. On these designated days, residents are allowed to set up their stalls wherever they like in the city. Some opt to tie a rope between two trees and hang their unwanted clothes from it. Others spread their wares over a park bench, setting up office for the day.
Some people set up gazebos and deal with cash using a fanny-pack or bum-bag, playing shopkeeper and salesman. Thousands upon thousands of books trade hands and old cooking equipment that once would never have seen use again, becomes a valued utensil to another. We’ve talked about the waste hierarchy before, and that reduce and reuse are at the top. Activities such as Siivouspäivä encourage people to reuse fundamentally, but the actual activity of boxing up all your unwanteds gives you a clear message that you need to reduce. Ideally you should have very little worth selling on (students, you understand), but if you do have a lot of stuff on your first Siivouspäivä, by the next one, you should have a lot less.
Known as the ‘neatest festival of the year’, recycling bins are provided in many locations, but most importantly, charities turn up at the end of the day and take away anything unsold and unwanted. The items are given to the needy or resold in charity shops so that the money can go to helping those who may require it.

The answer to the question earlier ‘how much money is raised annually from reverse vending machines in Finland?’ is 3.1 Million Euros. This loosely translates as four items passed through the machines per head. Should it be higher?

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