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Lessons in Circular Economy from the Finish Experience 

12 minute read
In the past few years, Finland has become a hub for circular economy. The country aims to curb the use of natural resources by 2035 and has committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2035. The road towards this goal cannot be reached without circular economy. Finland outlined a clear circular economy roadmap guided by supportive […]
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In the past few years, Finland has become a hub for circular economy. The country aims to curb the use of natural resources by 2035 and has committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2035. The road towards this goal cannot be reached without circular economy. Finland outlined a clear circular economy roadmap guided by supportive policies and legal frameworks, financial and technical aid, a collaborative ecosystem, integration of sustainability in education and societal support.

Nature operates under a circular model where every ecological system interacts with matter based on cyclical movements. This means that the waste of one living being becomes the sustenance for another. When the latter expires, it in turn nourishes the soil in an unending cycle.

Although, for ages this approach has proven effective, after the industrial revolution, humanity has increasingly adopted a linear path of consumption. This linear pattern is based on a simple principle: take, make, and dispose, which is incompatible with the planet's finite resources. Decades after such excessive linear model of consumption, many governments have started to realize its limitations, especially in the light of urbanization and population growth. It has become clear that pursuing more sustainable models is critical for preserving the earth’s ecosystem and combating climate change. 

In the last ten years, the Finnish government has invested considerable efforts spanning in sustainable and inclusive economic practices, in which it collaborated with policymakers, research institutions, and a dynamic private sector. Guided by the Finnish Innovation Fund, an independent public institution operating under the direct supervision of the National Parliament, Finland was the first country to set a national roadmap for circular economy. The roadmap outlines the necessary steps, measures, and transformations necessary to achieve a circular economy, as well as gathers stakeholders' opinions, and assists the government in securing adequate funding for projects, startups, research, and innovations.

Perhaps one of the most prominent lessons governments can draw from the Finnish experience is promoting a culture of environmental responsibility and cultivating a societal understanding of the concept of finite resources. Even before the popularization of the term "circular economy", Finland was engaged in developing circular solutions. It formulated policies and plans to encourage a culture of sustainability through all stages of the educational system. In addition, the private sector in Finland provides students with practical opportunities to familiarize themselves with business sustainable applications in real life, including those of the circular economy.

Many people mistakenly believe that a circular economy simply means recycling used materials. In fact, circular economy is much more interdisciplinary and encompassing than that. It intersects with various fields, including public administration, business activities, and the arts and humanities. Circular economy aims to replace current excessive production and consumption patterns with sustainable ones, such as developing and deploying sustainable energy production to regulate the use of natural resources. Finland, for example, has harnessed waste to generate energy.

To shift away from excessive product consumption, circular economy promotes the principle of sharing products and services. Finland has paved the way for several business models that enable product sharing, like renting furniture and equipment for limited periods. They also design products to have a longer lifespan, ensuring that they maintain their value and can always be repaired. This necessitates thinking deeply about the lifecycle of raw materials. Finland accomplishes this by offering incentives to companies that provide such products and imposing penalties on those that waste resources or adopt unsustainable practices.

One of the key lessons learned from the Finnish experience is the need to partner with the private sector and establish supportive frameworks to facilitate its transition from excessive consumption models to more sustainable ones. Finnish authorities organize workshops and programs that bring together the public and private sectors and support small and medium-sized enterprises. An example is the four-year program launched by Business Finland, a government innovation and financing organization, which allocated 300 million euros to support innovative experiments like the renewable farming pilot project. This involved over 100 farms collaborating to discover the optimal way to increase carbon sequestration in the soil. Their efforts led to the establishment of the Carbon Action platform, which supports the experimental field findings with laboratory research.

The Finnish government believes that finding solutions requires establishing a shared understanding and strong engagement across all members of society, as this should facilitate collaborative efforts across sectors. For this reason, it decided to target youth and launched educational initiatives to familiarize children and youth with the principles of circular economy, preparing the next generation of citizens, innovators, entrepreneurs, and decision-makers. Starting from early education, children begin thinking about how they can reduce food waste and learn to sort and recycle different types of waste. As they progress, educational methodologies develop with them, extending into higher education.

It is worth noting that reaching desired outcomes in circular economy at a societal level required years of effort, as it initially began with modest and limited small-scale experiments.

Finland’s efforts do not stop there; the Finnish government aspires to share its experience with other countries. Towards this goal, they have developed guidelines to map out the various stages of their process and have launched the World Circular Economy Forum, an event that brings together leading experts, policymakers, and innovators to exchange knowledge.

Locally, the government educational initiative in circular economy (2017 – 2019) educated more than 70,000 children and youth in primary, preparatory, secondary, vocational schools, research universities, applied science institutions, and civil society organizations.

Finland has achieved significant outcomes over the span of a decade. Since the government designed a deposit refund system in which a sum is added to the price of beverages and is then returned to the consumer upon returning empty metal, glass, and plastic containers. People in Finland now recycle 95% of beverage containers. This is roughly double the global average according to the Aluminium Association. They also recycle 49.2% of electronic waste.

What is striking is that more than three-quarters of the Finnish people support their government and believe that it should continue this journey, even if the rest of the world lags behind.

Today, Finland’s waste generation (excluding primary metallic waste) amounts to only 7.4% of its total domestic consumption, compared to the European average, which is close to 13%.

Adopting a circular economy means preserving natural resources, reducing waste, promoting green innovation, and creating job opportunities. While the circular economy helps achieve sustainability goals, it also encourages community members to think beyond the linear consumption model.

References:

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