Circular Economy Part I: Planning ahead

Harbour Times reporter Elise Mak travelled to Finland to explore how the country is adopting the concept of a circular economy and the lessons it holds for Hong Kong.

HELSINKI. Hong Kong is still working on promoting and fully adopting the 3Rs of waste – reducing, reusing and recycling – but Finland and other forward-looking countries have moved past that reactive stage to focus on adopting sustainability much earlier.

There are multiple lessons for Hong Kong in the circular economy concept that prevails in Finland. The key idea behind a circular economy is that resources are kept within the economy, even as products reach the end of their life. The goal is to design and manufacture products so that they can be used and reused and eventually recycled and brought back into the economy. The goal is to keep the cycle going for as long as possible.

To this end and whenever possible, products are repaired rather than replaced, parts are changed as needed. And, when products do hit the end of their useful lives, they are not sent to a landfill – as happens in Hong Kong – but separated into parts that can be reused and recycled.

This is the first of a multiple-part series focused on the lessons that Hong Kong, per capital one of the largest producers of garbage in the world, can learn from the one country that is leading the way towards adopting a circular economy.

The initiator

Promoting such a holistic, sustainable economic system has been a key issue for the previous and current administrations in Finland.

Finland first used the term “circular economy” in its national development strategy in 2016 as it rolled out “Circle to the top: Finland’s road map to a circular economy 2016–2025“. It was the world’s first country to adopt a systematic plan to adopt circular economy concepts.

The strategy stresses material-efficient and low-carbon solutions. Finland focuses on five interlinked areas: a sustainable food system to produce food through wiser use of raw materials; forest-based loops to manufacture and add value to products; technical loops to minimize the use of virgin raw materials; transport and logistics to develop a smart system that uses fossil-free fuels; and joint actions by legislators, companies, universities and research institutes, consumers and citizens.

The 2016 road map was an effort by multiple stakeholders, including Finnish government ministries and around 50 representatives from across multiple sectors of the economy who were invited to open discussions and interviews.

“The road map process really expanded the scope of preparation in our ministry, which was far too focused on administration,” said Marja-Liisa Tapio-Biström of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forest.

This year, the road map was updated as “Finland’s road map to a circular economy 2.0”.

The new version of the plan stresses a shift to the use of low-carbon energy, considering natural resources as scarce and focusing on everyday decisions as the driving force for change.

The Nordic country aims to cut its carbon footprint in half from 2010 levels by 2030.

What Hong Kong can do

Finland is rich in forests. It actively promotes forest-based loops with the use of bio-based materials. This is an approach that may not necessarily work in Asian cities like Hong Kong with limited resources. They would have to design their own road maps to sustainable economic systems.

“One way to design this road map is to identify your own country and what is relevant in your own country. Identify the major industries in Hong Kong,” Ernesto Hartikainen, senior lead of carbon-neutral circular economy at independent think tank Sitra, told Harbour Times.“Then get the key stakeholders together from a couple of ministerial sectors. Not just the environmental ministry but also the finance ministry because there might be issues of taxation and subsidies.”

Hong Kong took a similar approach to considering the issue in 2013.

Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department rolled out the “Hong Kong: Blueprint for Sustainable Use of Resources 2013-2022”, which aimed at transforming the waste management structure by 2022 – with 55 percent of the waste going to recycling, 23 percent to incineration and 22 percent to the landfill.

Not much happened, at least not rapidly. Five years after the blueprint was developed, authorities finally tabled a bill to the Legislative Council (LegCo) for a mandatory waste charging scheme. Starting next year, residents will need to pay to buy designated plastic bags in which to for their trash at HK$0.11 per litre of trash.

By 2017, Hong Kong was producing 1.45 kg of solid municipal waste per person, a 20-year-high. the city’s 2013 plan had called for a reduction down to 1 kg per person by that year. Every day, Hong Kong sends 15,500 tonnes of waste to the city’s landfills.

By comparison, Finland’s output of municipal waste per capita has been dropping steadily. Of the 504 kg of municipal waste generated per capita in all of 2016, just 3 percent or 15.1 kg went to the landfill for the whole year. About 42 percent of the total output, almost 212 kg per person per year, were recycled.

The difference between how much Hong Kong sends to the landfills and what Finland sends is enormous. There are about 5.5 million people in Finland, which means that the country sends 1.166 million tonnes of waste to the landfills per year or about 3,194 tonnes per day, about a fifth as much as Hong Kong does.

Hong Kong authorities have declared their intent in mobilizing the community to recycle more with efforts such as collecting more glass bottles and bringing their own bags to supermarkets, as well as investing in organic waste treatment facilities, waste-to-energy municipal solid waste treatment and landfill extensions.

But these actions mainly look at how to deal with waste, instead of looking at the whole life cycle of the products which would go a long way towards reducing waste.

The Finnish believe materials are not lost at the end of their useful life but can be used to make new products over and over again – hence the effort to encourage sustainable design right from the conceptual stage.

A holistic economic model, as the Finns believe, should be about the use of services – sharing, renting and recycling – instead of owning things. The approach could go a long way towards reducing the output of garbage and the carbon footprint of countries around the world, not the least of them, Hong Kong.