Raimo Inkinen: It’s important to get the whole plastic ecosystem to support the circular economy

Interview 01.06.2020

HSY’s Raimo Inkinen is steering the Helsinki Region toward the circular economy. As part of the Closed Plastic Circle project’s Task Force, Inkinen is working to ensure that a greater proportion of the plastics used in households end up being recycled and reused.

Currently, only six percent of plastics in the Helsinki metropolitan area circulate. The Closed Plastic Circle project’s goal is to increase plastic recycling tenfold. According to Inkinen, a particularly large challenge is posed by the plastics used in households.

“We’re only just beginning to recycle and recover household plastic waste. In industry, the recovery of plastic waste has been commonplace for longer. However, the good news is that residents and property owners are interested in recycling plastics.”

From scouts to protecting the environment

Inkinen, the CEO of Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY, has a long career in environmental protection. He already became interested in exploring nature when he was in the scouts as a child, and after upper secondary school he went to study environmental protection technology at the Helsinki University of Technology. There were only four students in his class at the time.

“In the 80s, environmental issues were often seen as antithetical to the economy and you had to justify the need for environmental protection. Nowadays, we are much more aware of the gravity of the situation, as well as the opportunities and practical measures involved.”

As a student, Inkinen was interested in what could be done in practice to benefit the environment. One of the things he did was to found an environmental club with his fellow students in Otaniemi, where they made Finland’s second apartment building composter. The first one had been made by environmental protection students in Viikki.

“Today, apartment buildings no longer need composters, since biowaste treatment can be done in other, better ways.”

The circular economy requires extensive cooperation

Inkinen’s goal at HSY is to enable sustainable urban life. This entails managing the Helsinki metropolitan area’s water and waste management in a sustainable manner and supporting residents in moving toward sustainable lifestyles.

“We are focusing on making waste sorting as easy as possible for the residents, so that we can also get as much plastic into circulation as possible. It’s therefore important to get a large part of the sorting into properties, close to the residents. It’s also important to direct people’s behaviour through advice and cooperate with property owners, for example.”

However, simply recycling plastic is not enough, and the next challenge is to reuse it. This is a major change at the system level, which has to affect several different points of the cycle, from product design to increasing recycling capacity and using recycled plastic in products. According to Inkinen, this requires extensive cooperation and support from legislation as well.

“Systemic change requires legislation that enables it, as well as economic instruments. It’s important to involve the whole plastic family, that is, plastic manufacturers, processors and plastic packaging producers.”

The Closed Plastic Circle project sets a common goal for the actors to strive for. So far, HSY has already worked with its partners to ensure that the quality of recycled plastic is as good as possible. Next, further research and development is needed in order to make use of plastic that is harder to recycle. HSY has added hard plastic recycling points to Sortti stations, for example, but more further processors and recycled plastic users are still needed.

“The Closed Plastic Circle project’s goal is ambitious yet realistic in order to inspire people to get involved. It’s also measurable, which means we can set intermediate targets and easily monitor progress.”

Reducing emissions through waste energy

In addition to reducing emissions from household consumption, HSY aims to reduce regional emissions produced in the Helsinki metropolitan area. Renewable energy plays a major role in reducing regional emissions.

“We produce a significant amount of the energy we use ourselves with renewable energy sources. Much of this comes from using biogas as electricity and heat.”

In addition, the heat from HSY’s wastewater is utilised in district heating production, and mixed waste is also utilised in a waste-to-energy plant for district heating and electricity, so it does not end up in landfills.

“Of course, reusing waste as material is always a priority. For example, when plastic recycling is increased, it will have a big climate impact.”