Finland has the opportunity to be a pioneer in building plastic system solution

Opinion 08.09.2020

Jorma Mikkonen is the Director of Corporate Relations and Responsibility at Lassila & Tikanoja plc, which is turning the circular economy into reality. He is also a member of the Closed Plastic Circle Project’s Task Force.

In the public debate on plastics, the discussion has mainly revolved around the concern about littering caused by plastics and the environmental and health damage it causes. From a circular economy perspective, however, plastic also presents a great opportunity. Only less than 6% of plastic material is reused, with the EU estimating that 70–100 billion euros of the value of plastic packaging material is lost each year due to it being buried in landfills or incinerated among mixed waste.

Plastic also plays a critical role in reducing climate emissions. It is often forgotten that plastic products bind as much carbon as is created by manufacturing them. If the plastic isn’t reused, but destroyed by waste incineration, the emissions caused by the plastic are doubled. Plastic recycling is thus at the heart of the fight against climate change and is also a financially smart and sustainable business. Most plastics are recyclable, and recycling can prevent 90% of emissions caused by plastic production. The efficient reuse and recycling of plastics can satisfy 60% of plastic production in Europe by 2050, while halving the CO2 emissions caused by plastics.

The plastic circular economy can only be achieved through close cooperation between the public and private sectors. How can such large-scale systemic changes be produced?

The plastic system solution requires smart regulation and cross-industry cooperation at different stages of the value chain, which ensures that European industry can make more efficient use of the plastics it puts into circulation. The role of cities in the development of plastic recovery is absolutely crucial, both as operational actors and, above all, as enablers of new innovations. That is why L&T also wants to be actively developing new operating models and concepts to promote the closed circulation of plastics.

Finland is in a really good position to begin utilising and developing industrial-scale system solutions for plastic, because we have expertise in all the different stages of the value chain. No one has yet been able to combine the different parts of the value chain into a regional symbiosis. If Smart & Clean succeeds in this, the Helsinki Region will become an internationally interesting reference.

These projects should reach an industrial scale, meaning industry and key businesses should play a leading role, with cities acting as solution enablers.

Plastic recycling has significant economic effects. What are its main business and employment impacts?

From a circular economy perspective, plastic presents a great opportunity. Currently, only about 6% of Europe’s plastic demand can be met by recycled plastics. In other words, over 90% of the value of plastic, estimated by the EU at 70–105 billion euros, is lost annually due to plastic being buried in landfills or incinerated among mixed waste. It is estimated that each year in Europe, 26 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated, which could be returned into industrial raw material with new technology and service solutions. By closing the plastic circles, we will reduce our dependence on fossil raw materials, but above all, we will be able to create new technologies to solve plastic problems where they exist.

In increasing plastic recycling, efficient separate collection and sorting at place of origin make up important parts of the chain. How should these be developed in Finland?

Certain mini-requirements are needed for sorting at place of origin, and this is currently being prepared by the Ministry of the Environment. In addition, new innovations at the sorting end should be enabled that complement the statutory level. Sorting has to be made as easy and effortless as possible. There is no such thing as one single patent solution.

What is Lassila & Tikanoja doing to recycle plastics particularly in construction, industry, and the trade and service sector?

We aim to help our clients in the recovery of plastics and its industrial utilisation. Plastic recovery on construction sites has been steadily increasing. We are moving from traditional, lightweight materials such as clear packaging plastics to increasingly challenging fractions, such as insulation and hard plastics. In the trade sector, both closed circle system solutions and store-level sorting and recovery are being developed. We have also invested in new technologies that allow even more challenging plastic batches to be processed into industrial raw materials. Pure recycled plastic is currently in very good demand and recovery is developing really well in both households and companies.