For generations, world economies have operated on a business model of take-make-dispose, which has resulted in excessive resource consumption, pollution and landfilling. It’s inefficient, wasteful and a missed opportunity.

The alternative solution to this is the “circular economy”, which seeks not to recycle but rather to design products and business models that allow materials to remain in circulation for as long as possible.

Finland was the first country to prepare a national road map to a circular economy in 2016, under the leadership of Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, which organises the annual World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF), a showcase of innovative circular economy solutions for business leaders, policymakers and experts.

The original road map included six key projects and dozens of pilot programmes, which kick-started Finland’s transition to a circular economy. Sitra has since invested heavily in the promotion of the circular economy and launched dozens of programmes.

The Finns believe technological and social innovations are the key to finding solutions to meet ambitious global and national climate targets. Here are some examples of how companies in Finland are making the circular economy work for them:

Nihtisilta, Espoo

The Nihtisilta second-hand goods store. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

Locals know it as the Kierrätyskeskus (“recycling centre”), a centre for reused and upcycled goods that opened 30 years ago to save natural resources by circulating goods. 

Millions of household products – from clothes to baby goods, bicycles, furniture and appliances – have since been sold to the public, after a brief pitstop in their workshops, for a fraction of the price of new goods.

There are currently 12 Nihtisilta markets in Finland, which encourage residents either to donate their unwanted goods or buy second-hand. The social enterprise, backed by Helsinki and other cities, NGOs and other partners, employs about 500 people and raises awareness.

Goods that aren’t sold, or aren’t good enough for resale, are either withdrawn and offered for free to vulnerable residents, or recycled.

Second-hand goods are becoming increasingly popular with consumers of every income bracket.

Leena Nukari, head of the Environment School Polku, demonstrates an approximate carbon saving. In this case, buying a second-hand bicycle instead of a new one could save about 150kg of carbon. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

Leena Nukari, the head of the Environment School Polku, which drives the educational programme, said: “Finland has a high level of income so we consume a lot, which is why we have so many things. We consume more than five times more than the sustainable level, which is why we are trying to fight this. 

“The economic machine, to sell, is very powerful. Finnish people consume  a lot; things they don’t need. It’s a real problem. We need to take less and use it for longer.”

Remeo recycling facility

The Remeo recycling centre. (Photo: Supplied)

The Remeo recycling centre. (Photo: Supplied)

Remeo is Europe’s most advanced processing facility and attracts Finland’s largest investment in the circular economy. The facility processes construction and commercial waste into materials that can be reused, through sorting technologies that collect data at every touch point.

At the hi-tech plant outside Helsinki, robots separate and sort plastic, wood, paper, cardboard and metals that are carried from mounds of waste via conveyor belts. The facility employs a handful of technicians and five cleaners and runs cost-efficiently.

Seventy percent of the waste can be recycled; the rest is incinerated.

Simplifying the business case, Johan Mild, CEO of Remeo, explained: “We get paid to receive waste from companies, we get paid to sell reusable materials to other companies and we get to save the planet. [Business] is really good.”

Mild said a lot of waste can be reused in production. “If the quality is good, we can sell all of it.”

The investment in the plant was €35-million, and the annual turnover is €120-million.

“To demonstrate the business case of investing in highly advanced technologies, before this investment two years ago, Remeo paid about €30 per tonne for bad quality plastic. Now, when we can separate really clear, good quality plastic, we can get paid up to €300 per tonne.”

Nolla restaurant

Located in central Helsinki, Nolla (“zero” in Finnish) is an ambitious “zero waste” restaurant, which operates true to its sustainable values and waste-free ideology.

The Michelin Green Star restaurant is owned by three chefs: Luka Balac from Serbia, Albert Franch Sunyer from Spain and Carlos Henriques from Portugal, offering a tight nose-to-tail menu of local ingredients. Only the wine and olive oil are sourced from sustainable producers abroad because Finland is too cold for grapes and olives.

Staff aprons are made from recycled linen, there’s an on-site brewery that turns food waste into craft beer, drinks are served in repurposed glass botftles and no packaging is accepted from suppliers. Food scraps are composted.

The store employs only staff from vulnerable communities, including migrants and the disabled.

Kera district

The Kera district in Espoo is a pioneer in sustainable urban development. The Keran Hallit, a multipurpose sports and events hall, will eventually be demolished. (Photo: Georgina Crouth)

The Kera district in Espoo is a pioneer in sustainable urban development, where solutions supporting a carbon-neutral, co-creating, sustainable city are being tested.

Over the next 15 years, the city on the outskirts of Espoo will be built to house more than 14,000 residents. Espoo is already a leading city in sustainability and focuses on co-creation, world-class research and the quality of sustainable start-ups, companies and innovations.

A range of partners are involved in the Kera development, including Nokia, Ramirent, SOK and Sitra.

The project is designed around the concept of the circular economy, with renewable, energy-efficient buildings, low-carbon construction and flexible spaces, urban food production and other sustainable features to attract innovative companies and like-minded residents.

One of the start-ups operating in Kera is InnoGreen, which generates sustainable urban solutions for energy efficiency, carbon capture and food production. These include living green walls and roofs to reduce noise pollution.

Another, Hyperion Robotics, designs and manufactures sustainable structures such as concrete reefs, silos and foundations. It’s also using mining tailings in its mixtures to create a 95% recycled, 3D-printable mortar mix. DM

Georgina Crouth was hosted at the WCEF 2023 by Sitra.

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