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.
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.
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.
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.
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.