Like most people in Finland, Mikko Tanner has four different rubbish bins in the small kitchen of his apartment in Etela-Haaga, a small suburb near the Nordic country’s capital of Helsinki. But it’s not because the father of two has a lot to throw away.
He just has to make sure that his rubbish gets thrown into the right places: one bin for mixed waste, another for organic waste, one more for plastic and the last for cardboard and paper. Oh, and he has two other bins in his closet – one for used batteries and the other for glass bottles and cans.
When we ask if he thinks sorting household waste is inconvenient or that all the bins take up too much space in the kitchen of his 72sq m home, he shrugs and replies: “We recycle almost everything – paper, metal, glass, plastic.”
Tanner and his young family, like other households in Finland, sort their household waste into four or five different streams, which are then emptied into individual dumpsters on the ground floor of their apartment complex. These are later collected by different waste companies for processing and recycling.
What can’t be recycled goes into the mixed waste dumpster; content from this dumpster goes straight to the landfill or the incinerator. Tanner’s apartment complex is charged for what the waste companies pick up.
“Mixed waste processing is the most expensive. If the dumpster gets filled up too fast, the complex has to pay the costs for an extra dumpster (for mixed waste),” he explains to members of the media who were on a trip to examine how Finland handles its waste earlier this year.
“We get charged less for other types of waste and this encourages you to recycle.” In Tanner’s case, he pays about 250 a month (RM1,100) to his apartment complex, and this covers dumpster costs and waste collection.
Asked what would happen if a neighbour doesn’t recycle and the mixed waste dumpster fills up too fast, Tanner shrugs. “Then the entire complex has to pay for the extra dumpster,” he says, adding that there would be people who did not want to recycle – “It’s their choice,” he says.
The thing is, most people do recycle in Finland. According to independent consultancy Eunomia, the country recycled over 40% of its municipal waste in 2017. However, the This Is Finland website, produced by the country’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, puts the rate higher now.
Recycling of refillable glass bottles is almost 100% while aluminium cans and plastic bottles are recycled at a rate of 96% and 94%. Almost 93% of paper is recycled. This preoccupation with sorting and recycling is all part of Finland’s embrace of the circular economy, a movement the country is hoping to lead.
In a circular economy, the lifespan of items is prolonged through sharing, recycling and reusing multiple times. The Finnish government doesn’t just see the concept as a sustainable solution to the world’s waste problem but also as a lucrative business opportunity, capable of generating an additional global economic output of US$4.5tril (RM18.8tril) by 2030.
The Finnish people must agree with their government, as they voted in a coalition earlier this year that campaigned on a pledge to work on the circular economy (as well as climate change and biodiversity).
“The circular economy was one of the key topics for the previous administration. It will be for the new administration as well,” says Finnish Environment Institute’s Dr Rina Antikainen.
The country’s high-level think tank and innovation fund Sitra touts Finland as having the world’s first national road map to a circular economy; it was published in 2016 and subsequently updated.
What about Malaysia? Malaysia is grappling with diminishing landfill space and mounting local (and imported) waste. Can we follow in Finland’s footsteps?
Many would argue that Malaysia doesn’t enjoy the same living and education standards as Finland. Furthermore, the Nordic country is fairly homogeneous in that it has a mainly urban population of 5.5 million people within a 338,424sq km area.
Over 85% of Finns live in towns and cities, with Helsinki alone having one million people. In contrast, Malaysia has 31.4 million people squeezed into 330,803sq km, an area smaller than Finland; we also have an extensive rural population, some in remote areas.
Despite these differences, though, Malaysia is going ahead and preparing to introduce a circular economy framework by 2021, and is joining more and more nations in doing so.
Although there are provisions under the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 (Act 672) to compel Malaysians to separate their waste at source or risk a fine, the provisions have never been enforced, something that is reflected in the low national recycling rate of just 24.6% last year.
Hoping to boost that rate, in July, the Housing and Local Government Ministry declared that institutions, schools and businesses must now separate their waste on their premises.
According to Waste Management Association chairman Ho De Leong, asking waste producers, be they households or businesses, to separate at source is important, as this would allow for the waste to be better processed and turned into a resource or secondary material for, as an example, clothing.
Ho says most Malaysians don’t sort their waste for recycling because it’s simply cheaper and easier to throw everything away unsorted.
In some European Union countries, there is a directive in place to reduce biowaste, including food waste, from landfills as well as a landfill tax that can go as high as 200 to 300 (RM900 to RM1,300) per tonne in addition to high tipping charges.
“So (EU countries) set their targets and this would then stimulate other developments and changes in the way that people treat their waste, rather than get fined,” he says, adding that the right quantum should be around RM100 per tonne for a sanitary landfill. (A sanitary landfill is one designed to handle waste in a relatively environmentally safe manner.).
“In Malaysia, we don’t have a landfill tax and our tipping charges are between RM10 and RM40 only.”
Setting up a circular economy will involve costs, including the cost of infrastructure, so Ho feels that it will only work if policies are put in place to make it sustainable in the long term. “People won’t do it if it does not make business sense,” he says, adding that it is necessary to have mechanisms and regulations in place.
The question is: Who leads the change in behaviour among Malaysians? And what form should it take? Should it be the federal government who first has to draft and legislate these mechanisms and regulations?
Or should it be businesses who begin by making recycling easier for the public because it’s more profitable for them? Or could it be the local councils that oversee landfill and waste management operations in cities? Or even ordinary Malaysians themselves?
Cities As Catalysts
Helsinki Metropolitan Smart and Clean Foundation believes that the world’s greatest challenges can be solved in the cities. Its senior adviser Iina Oilinki says this is because cities can enable action to solve challenges by providing “test beds”, resources and other necessary conditions for developing new businesses.
“A city can be, for example, a strategic leader, a financier, a supplier, or a spokesperson. Cities also have an important role as educators and communicators who raise awareness and increase dialogue between city actors and dwellers,” she says.
In a local context, this is mostly evident in highly urbanised Penang and Selangor. Both states were among the first to begin charging consumers 20 sen for a plastic bag. Their residents have a high awareness about recycling and are the most likely to use their own shopping bags.
With Malaysia having an urban population of 71% in 2010 – according to the Statistics Department – local councils may actually hold the key to behavioural change among consumers. But they come under the behest of state governments, some of whom, as mentioned, haven’t even adopted Act 672 or imposed the 20 sen charge for plastic bag use.
Even as some states in Malaysia drag their feet over implementation, some businesses have chosen to move ahead, including Tesco Malaysia.
A member of the newly established Malaysia Plastics Pact, Tesco has initiated its own campaign, allowing customers in all its stores nationwide to earn a 20 sen discount for buying and using its recyclable bags. It is also re-thinking the packaging material used in its product line.
In return, the company has seen savings in its operation costs from reducing plastic use among customers (see story on Tesco).
The Plastics Pact, announced on Sept 10 by the Malaysian government, is based on the British Plastic Pact that saw over 70 businesses sign up and pledge that by 2025, all their plastic packaging will be able to be reused, recycled or recomposted.
But as many speakers at the recent World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki pointed out: Why stop there?
There are ample business opportunities to be had, ranging from replacing ubiquitous plastic coffee cups with cardboard capable of holding water without getting soggy to installing reverse vending machines for the collection of aluminium cans and glass and plastic bottles.
Even furniture giant Ikea is into circularity, announcing in March that it is expanding tests of its furniture rental and leasing programme to 30 countries.
Finland’s Haaga-Helia University principal lecturer Minna-Maari Harmaala says the biggest challenge any circular economy business model faces is “getting partnership”. “It has to include outside management. You don’t just need recyclers. You need customers and collectors (of the waste),” she says.
Recounting her experience of visiting various dumpsites in Asia, Harmaala says any sorting there usually had to be carried out at the waste management centre at the landfill itself.
“But in Finland, the focus is on the households with eight or nine different streams of waste. To do that and do that correctly takes a lot of time,” she admits but stresses that “for a circular economy to work, everyone has to do their bit”.
As for Tanner, there isn’t a time he doesn’t remember having to sort his waste at home or recycle. “My parents did it, too. I’ve gotten used to it and I don’t think too much about it.” Maybe that’s the way that Malaysia should go – together.