The Reverse Vending Machine

If you’re at a party and a New Zealander says to you “Well, we’re probably going to start thinking about heading off sometime soon,” it basically means: Say goodbye, we are going. Finnish people, from what I can tell, are much more direct. For example, unless you always takes the stairs, you will be familiar with the Finnish elevator company, Kone. Kone means machine. Enough said.

Kone - making elevators since they were made out of wood

Kone – making elevators since they were made out of wood

So I love the name given to the recycling stations found in most supermarkets and grocers here – the reverse vending machine. Instead of putting money in and getting a bottle out, you put bottles in and get money out. Brilliant.

Pullo ja Bottle & can return

Pullo ja tölkkipaulautus – Bottle & can return

I mentioned here earlier that there is no plastic recycling in our apartment building. However the return rate of recyclable plastic bottles, glass bottles and drink cans in Finland is over 90%! The scheme works so well, with the return on containers set at 0,10€ for glass bottles, 0,15€ on cans and up to 0,40€ on plastics. This is refunded in the form of a voucher that can be spent in-store or sometimes as money from the cashier. Some machines also provide the option of donating your refund to charity.

Woohoo - its like winning the lottery every time!

Woo hoo – its like winning the lottery every time!

After spending a few days in Helsinki you start to notice there’s a community of people who make their way around collecting used cans and bottles to earn a bit of cash from recycling. After a big festival or event like Vappu (May Day) it’s not long before the streets and parks are cleaned of leftover rubbish. In fact people deliberately leave bottles and cans out for those who collect them, to save them having to sort through the city’s bins.

Nice little nest egg there

Nice little nest egg there

I did wonder what stopped someone from just wheeling the whole recycling bin out of our apartment building down to Siwa to help fund their grocery bill but had it explained to me that not all bottles and cans are eligible. A Corona beer or imported wine won’t necessarily have the required pantti mark on it. This is the deposit paid when purchasing these items that is refunded when returned to one of the 4000 or so reverse vending machines across the country.

Karhu = bear so its Bear Beer

Karhu = bear so its Bear Beer

And here’s an interesting fact: glass bottle recycling was first kick-started by the introduction of Coca-Cola into Finland during the Summer Olympics held here in 1952. Since then Finns keep topping world statistics in recycling rates and the number of cans returned in one year is estimated to be able to reach around the globe three times. I’ll be looking for a job soon but in the meantime will be doing my part in reclaiming some of the EUR 310 million generated by returns annually. I’ll drink to that!

Finland Tops The World in Bottle Recycling





Trash and treasure in Helsinki’s parks


I used to love Cleaning Day at work in Sydney. I remember singing ‘I’m having the time of my life‘ from Dirty Dancing as I hurled old paper files behind me, ready for the shredder. We were like a big messy family in that office and we’d fill a skip outside with rubbish that people would sift through on their way past. One year I saw a man take home a big double wardrobe we were giving away, balanced carefully on his ten-speed bicycle. Another time a well-meaning client brought us in a gaudy statue of a dolphin sitting on a log that he had just found and would look great in the office! I thanked him and then put it back in the skip where he had got it from.


So there’s something so exciting about seeing the people of Helsinki being encouraged to clean out their homes and then hold outdoor sales around the city. Siivouspäivä, or Cleaning Day, is held twice a year with the event being held for the fifth time just last Saturday 24th May.


People can set up to sell their unneeded belongings anywhere around the city. I saw stalls outside apartments, on street corners, in parks and on pavements. There were loads of clothes and kids toys for sale as well as homewares and books.


People were out enjoying the sunshine, perusing the stalls and having picnics. Stallholders were drinking wine in the sun or eating with family and friends. There was a lovely festive feeling as the city’s belongings were moved from one home to another.


At the end of the day community development agencies UFF and Fida arrive in certain spots to take away any unsold goods to sell in their charity stores. Bins and recycling areas are also advertised on the Siivouspäivä website to avoid junk being left behind. As the website says, its ‘the neatest festival of the year.’

The answer to one of life’s mysteries…almost

Here I will endeavour to answer one of life’s most interesting questions. A question as interesting as it is intriguing, and so oft asked you’ll know it before you read it: How do Finns sort their recycling?

And my answer has but two words: Comprehensively and Honestly.

Comprehensively because I have never before seen so many options in one rubbish room. I thought I was doing well in New Zealand because I separated the recyclables from the paper. But here, each of those items has its own bin AND they separate the paper into three different categories. Maybe more.

Mixed waste

Mixed waste

In our rubbish room in Helsinki there is a different bin for each type of waste: glass, metal, mixed waste, bio waste and then the three paper bins. So for the first week or so I was constantly lifting the lid of each bin for clues as to what goes where.

Bio waste including paper towels

Bio waste including paper towels

To be honest I still haven’t figured out all the paper bins but from what I can tell these are the categories: magazines & letters (advertising); regular paper; cardboard including corrugated cardboard; and cartons such as milk cartons, pizza boxes and egg crates – each type of paper or card having its own receptacle. Paper towels and tissues go in with the bio waste. And to make it more confusing for my little English-speaking mind there seems to be another bin for boxes.

Letters & Magazines

Letters & Magazines

But where is the bin for plastics? Well that’s why I said Finns recycle honestly. There is NO bin for plastics! Plastic drink bottles earn you a small refund at the cleverly named reverse vending machines but general household plastics (detergent bottles, ice cream containers, plastic takeaway containers) are not collected for recycling.


Cartons & sugar and flour in paper bags

There’s a community forum online where new arrivals to Finland can ask questions. Someone had already sought guidance about where to put plastics and another member explained it is too difficult and therefore too expensive for household plastics to be sorted for recycling. Plastic waste is also often not clean enough for recycling which makes my mixed bin of glass, metal and every plastic under the sun seem a nightmare for the recyclers in NZ now.

Plastic recycling bins were trialled in the 1990s in Finland but from what I read the energy used to sort and clean all the plastic was found to outweigh the environmental benefits. It’s not to say no household plastics are recycled in Finland as they are used for fuel and other products but you won’t find a bin in most residential buildings.

The flipside of this is it does make me think more about packaging as I know plastics won’t be recycled instead of kind of hoping they would. You have to pay for bags at the supermarket too so I’m much better at taking my own bag along. We even have one with the image of the Finnish national icon on it.

Our shopping bag featuring Moomin

Our shopping bag featuring Moomin