Finland’s head start in recycling
We speak to two Finnish pioneering executives on how to serve as a good example in the transforming years to come.
20 Mar 2024

In 2016, Finland became the first country in the world to develop a circular economy roadmap, and a special government program has ever since worked on creating a ”carbon-neutral circular economy society”. Last year, the Finns recycled more than 2.2 billion deposit-based beverage containers — the highest number ever recorded. Just this week, Infinited Fiber Company completed a two-part development financing round totalling 40 million euros, including an investment from Inditex. The Espoo-based fashion-tech company’s patented technology turns cotton-rich textile waste, such as worn-out t-shirts, jeans, and production scraps into Infinna, a virgin-quality, versatile textile fibre with the soft and natural look and feel of cotton. It is biodegradable, contains no microplastics, and at the end of their life, garments made with it can be recycled in the same process together with other textile waste, enabling circularity in fashion.

EU’s new waste directive imposes an obligation on EU Member States to sort textile waste at source, effective by January 1, 2025. That will be exactly two years after the same legal requirement for separate collection of textiles by waste management came to Finland. So, what have they learned so far? More on that later.

The other week, waste sorting company Syklo unveiled the plans to build the largest plastic recycling plant in Finland. The production capacity is projected to be 50,000 tonnes annually, which will increase the country’s plastic recycling capacity by up to 50 percent. An important investment, given that in 2020, the country’s recycling rate for plastic was 39,4 percent — well short of the EU’s 2025 goal of 50 percent. Since then, significant investments have been made, with Syklo’s plant in Hyvinkää, 50 kilometres north of Helsinki, being the latest.

— It will increase Finland’s recycling rate of plastic packaging by up to 20 percent, says Teemu Koskela, CEO of Syklo. The scale of the project is significant as we plan to expand our operations to other Nordic countries, the Baltics, and the rest of Europe. We are also exploring quite a few different new business areas, along with our current — closing the loop of construction materials and creating new products from low-value bio streams.

In the new facility, to be commissioned in 2025, two patented technologies — BOSS and PRE — will be provided by UK-based Impact Recycling in its first move outside of the British islands. It ensures a higher yield and material utilisation rate compared to other methods. The Baffled Oscillaton Separation System (BOSS) enables the separation of plastic types with very small density differences, overcoming current challenges in recycling mixed post-consumer plastics. The PRE additive technology produces a final product with a specific Melt Flow Rate (MFR) and colour, said to be of superior quality compared to market alternatives. The final product of the recycling process is recycled plastic granules, that are used as raw material for high-value consumer-grade plastic products. 

— We are thrilled to be internationalising the technology, which has already proved its effectiveness in the UK. We are excited to be working with a future European leader in the field and believe we can revolutionise the recycling industry and encourage Europe towards a genuine, sustainable, and nature-positive circular economy, says David Walsh, CEO of Impact Recycling.

The Hyvinkää facility will employ advanced water management practices to distill and reuse wastewater, and the sludge containing microplastics will be dried. This prevents the release of any microplastics into water bodies.

Teemu Koskela, Greenpeace and others state the importance of moving away from plastics, including when recycled. Moving forward, what’s your view on recycled plastic?

— Efficient plastic recycling is crucial in making circular economy a reality. Currently, most of the plastic in waste streams in Finland is incinerated producing large amounts of GHG emissions. By recycling these plastics, a significant impact on climate change can be created while also reducing the demand for virgin oil. At the same time, large systemic change is needed. There is a need for development in the plastic industry to reduce toxic components while the overall plastic demand should decrease through product and service design and promotion of reuse. Having said that, the reality is still that there will be lots of plastic waste for a long time and therefore recycling is desperately needed, he says, adding,

— Our plant is designed to minimise the negative impacts of plastic recycling. We will not be generating wastewater as we are investing in a closed-loop water system — we use a wet process which limits dust emissions and the process itself limits the number of toxic substances ending up to the end product. The end products will be used in high-end applications but not in food contact. There are also development processes to further purify the product to meet even higher standards.

Syklo’s coming plant is not the only significant investment in recycling in Finland. Last year, right after Finland’s mentioned implementation of the separate collection of textiles, LSJH (Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto) moved to a larger sorting facility to accommodate the predicted increase in volumes. The municipal waste management company coordinates the separate collection of end-of-life textiles from households in Finland. It combines the nationwide collected streams and sorts them by material content into fractions of recycled material feedstock that we offer to our customers.

— In effect, we are in the business of C2B enabling textiles circularity, Anna Garton, Post-Consumer Textiles Expert at LSJH, says. We’ve been working to recover valuable textile materials out of mixed waste for many years now. With the new legal requirement in Finland, our efforts have been to create a national network that locally collects and pre-sorts end-of-life textiles, removing damaged items that don’t belong, and returning any that are resell quality. We then receive and combine the material streams, sort by material content, and offer industry with large volumes of feedstock. Before, each municipality had to find their own local solutions or not collect end-of-life textiles.

— After moving to the new sorting facility, we’re now looking into investing in sorting automation. We continue to try to find new solutions and customers that can utilise our recycled textile raw material. We’re therefore working with new innovations and building supply chains in various industries. Without demand and solutions for the raw material, we are only collecting and sorting, not recycling. 

Garton describes how this new partnership cooperation model, when creating a national network, comes with both pros and cons.

— It’s more efficient for us all, but it has required much work, including experience and knowledge sharing to standardise the pre-sorting. Separate collection and sorting require infrastructure and resources to implement, on top of which we rely on the public to follow the instructions on the collection bins. We learned early on that the collection location and frequency directly affect the amounts that can be recycled. Textiles are easily damaged by damp and during use which means the quality suffers easily. Understanding which bins are for reusable third-sector collection and what is end-of-life takes time and education. Also, textiles contain mostly multicolour blends and mixed materials which are not easily recycled.

This initiative has also, understandably, gained a lot of traction, both within Finland and abroad.

— We continuously share our gained experience and knowledge in numerous ways through EU projects, our networks, and partnerships, at events and during visits to our facility. We are asked about our view on the EU Textile Strategy, our waste management network, and how mixed textile waste can be sorted into raw materials, Garton shares. She continues:

— We need clarity about the roles and responsibilities in textiles collection from the EU Textile legislation. New innovations and investments are needed to get turned into practical applications to create a recycled materials market where all parties can be profitable. Textile’s production chains are long and complex, and making supply and demand meet requires long-term commitment and new production methods. We need to slow down our rate of consumption, keep garments in use as long as possible — according to the R-strategies — start valuing what we already have, and returning what we can into circulation when possible.

You mentioned how new innovations and investments are needed. Can you share any good examples here?

— The processes required to recycle textiles are long, so new supply chains are needed in multiple closed and open loops. In national projects such as Telaketju, we have investigated these. We have been working with Infinited Fibre Company, Södra, and other MMCF (Man-made cellulosic fibres) producers to meet their material needs as they are scaling up from pilot to full-scale production. We have also encouraged local mechanical non-wovens production investments, supported yarn spinners, and created demand for products that include recycled content. The final product needs to have a balance for producers between the retail price and higher recycled material costs, especially in the current economic climate. This means creating long-term relationships of trust and comprehending the importance of the role each plays, not traditional linear profit margin thinking.

Do you agree when Finland is described as a ”recycling pioneer”?

— Yes and no. In Finland, we have collaborated across sectors — public, private, and research — sharing our knowledge and competencies towards a common goal without competing. At the same time, we are not very good at using our existing resources — which the global statistics show — so we’re also far from a circular economy in practice. The early creation of the national circular roadmap, funding from Business Finland, and encouraging research and innovation have all contributed. We are very good at creating new innovations here in Finland, but still need to learn to take these into practice ourselves to create economic opportunities for ourselves. I guess we are a small enough economy so that we must collaborate, but this also means that we also require other Nordic and Baltic partnerships. We still need to improve on our society’s footprint and find more local ways to manage the negative effects of our current lifestyles.

In less than 10 months, the rest of the EU countries need to implement what Finland has already gone through. Before the legal requirement in 2023, Garton and LSJH have also worked towards separate collection through projects and trials, such as the KaMu collection (a trial model for nationwide collection of end-of-life textiles in Finland launched in 2020), since 2015. 

Here are Anna Garton’s dos and don’ts, based on her experience: