Waste Minimization in Finland
Originally appeared in FRR - January 1999
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Fifteen years ago, the Finnish town of Vaasa ran out of landfill space. The citizens were faced with either finding a large new site to dump the towns refuse, or fundamentally changing the way they handled the waste they produced. Choosing the latter option, the town now sends just 9.5% of its waste to a new, small landfill site the rest is reused, recycled, or turned to energy. Vaasas new system is a milestone on the road to truly sustainable urban living.
Modern cities and towns produce a lot of waste. And in most cases, very little of the waste produced is recovered or recycled. In the United States, Europe and Japan, landfills are still the final destination for vast majority of municipal waste. Even in countries that consider themselves to be aggressive in developing recycling initiatives, the vast majority of waste still ends up in landfills. For example, Germany in 1990 some 374 million tonnes of waste was produced, of which just 74 million tonnes (19.7%) was recycled. The situation had improved somewhat by 1993 (the last year for which government figures are available), but even then only 85 million tonnes of 337 million tonnes waste (25%) was recycled.
While the level of recycling in Germany is substantially better than the levels achieved in the UK, Japan, and much of the US, it is still a long way from sustainable waste treatment. Yet, the technology for sustainable treatment of waste exists and has been successfully used for 6 years in a small town in Finland.
Vaasa is a pleasant town of 55 000 inhabitants, located on Finlands west coast (latitude 63°N). It is a popular tourist destination and prides itself on its beautiful scenery and green image. However, in the mid-1980s, Vaasa was confronted with a major environmental problem. The towns landfill (which received the majority of municipal waste) was rapidly running out of space and there was no suitable site on which to construct a replacement facility. The problem was made even more difficult because the landfill belonging to the neighbouring town of Mustasaari was also running out of space. As a result, the two communities decided to develop an advanced waste treatment system, which would dramatically reduce the amount of landfill space needed in the future.
The goal originally set for the new treatment system was to reduce the quantity of waste disposed in landfills by 70%. This was to be achieved by six methods:
- Sorting of waste
- Achieving high recovery of metals, furniture and other recyclable goods
- Using biodegradeable waste to produce biogas and humus (soil)
- Using biogas produced as fuel in electricity generation
- Using humus produced in park maintenance
- Burning combustible waste to produce electricity
First steps to waste reduction
Reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills requires fairly good separation of different types of waste. Thus, several years before the new waste plants were switched on, it was decided to ask every household in the town to begin sorting their domestic waste. The aim of such an early start was to merely to get citizens used to sorting waste, but an immediate benefit was also noted; the levels of waste produced per household began to fall. It became obvious that merely thinking about waste was affecting the way people bought packaged goods and causing them to behave in a more environmentally-friendly" manner. Over 90% of the population sorted their waste correctly, and some 80% expressed positive comments about the sorting process. For this reason the local government already had cause to believe the Vaasa-project would be a great success.
The Stormossen Plant
The heart of the Vaasa project, the Stormossen waste treatment plant, began operation in 1991. The plant receives waste from Vassa, Mustasaari, and (since 1994) the Ekorosk waste company. In total the plant receives biodegradeable domestic waste from 130 000 people. After source separation (and mechanical screening) biological treatment of the waste begins.
Thermophilic (55°C) treatment of the waste results in the production of hygenized humus mass (soil). The soil produced (200 kg for each 450 kg of waste entering the biological plant) has high levels of nutrients and is particularly suitable for use in Vaasas parks and recreation areas. Due to good source separation of waste, the heavy metal content of the soil is very low, and so can be sold for use as a fertilizer on both agricultural and forestry land.
The Stormossen plant also produces significant amounts of Vaasas electricity. Each tonne of biowaste treated yields between 100 and 150 cubic meters of biogas. The gas is 60-70% methane and burns cleanly to produce 6-7kWh of electricity per cubic meter. Some 20% of this energy is used internally (to keep the plant operating at the required temperature of 55°C), whilst the other 80% is converted into electricity for use in Vaasa.
Pietarsaari Pellet Plant
In 1996, the Pietarsaari pellet plant was put into operation to handle waste that is not treated at Stromossen. The plant now handles all of Vaasas burnable waste (paper, cardboard etc), processing it into small pellets. The pellets are then sold to a local paper mill, where they replace imported coal as a fuel. The pellets have the advantage of burning cleanly, each 100kg producing just 10kg of ashes.
The final component in the Vaasa system is the Ekokeskus the citys environmental center. Ekokeskus operates both as a recycling point and an advice bureau for Vaasas citizens. It is staffed by an environmental officer and also provides employment for six long-term unemployed residents.
One key aim of the center is to find new ways to use old products. A workshop is used to repair discarded electrical appliances (which are then sold to earn the center money or donated to poorer countries such as Estonia). When appliances are beyond repair, the center turns them into new and innovative products. Indeed, one of the most popular products made by the center is a fish-smoking box, which is made out of the drums from old washing machines.
Waste treatment in Vaasa in 1997
The changes in Vaasa since the mid-1980s have resulted in a near-sustainable waste-treatment system. The original aim of reducing waste sent to landfill site by 70% had been exceeded significantly. By 1997, over 90% of household waste was recycled or burnt, with just 9.5% sent to the towns new, smaller landfill.
Each 1000kg of household waste is now treated as follows:
- 450 kg processed into pellets and burnt in the local paper mill (producing 2400kWh energy and 45kg of ashes for disposal)
- 450 kg treated at Stormossen biological plant (producing 200kg of high-quality soil and 450kWh of electricity from biogas)
- 50kg ferrous metals for recycling
- 50 kg of waste for disposal
From 1996, the Stormossen plant has also been treating construction and industrial waste. This means that (as of 1997) 90% of all waste from Vaasa is recycled.
The Vaasa Project has showed that waste treatment can be much more sustainable than it is in the majority of the developed world. The project was completed with little government support (the Finnish government contributed just 20% to the cost of the developments). Howevcetrver seven years of operation the plant has proved to be an economic success and CITEC (the company responsible for developing the Stormossen plant) has installed similar systems in several other European countries (including Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland) and Japan.