You need statistics to reach the recycling goals – but what is most important is more conscientious recycling

2020-12-14 Heidi Pirtonen

In 2019, Finns produced over three million tons of municipal waste, i.e. approximately 565 kilograms per resident. The amounts of waste have increased in the recent years.

But why keep statistics on waste? What do statistics reveal about the recycling of municipal waste? What kind of definitions are relevant in the processing of waste?

In addition to household waste, municipal waste covers the waste with similar qualities, textures and volumes produced by the retail, industrial and service sectors. This means waste produced at schools, shops, restaurants, offices and the health care sector, and so on. You can think of municipal waste as consumption waste: it is closely connected to the consumption of products and services, their useful life and ways of use.

The statistics divide municipal waste by material to separately collected and miscellaneous waste. The types of waste are furthermore divided by processing methods, and for municipal waste the most important methods are utilising waste as material and energy.

Various concepts of waste and waste management are often used interchangeably in everyday speech. Sometimes they might even seem unnecessary from an ordinary person’s viewpoint. But for statistical purposes, these definitions are essential.

According to the definition, an item or material becomes waste after its user has removed them from use, or they plan or are required to do so. In Finland, waste management is based on what is known as the order of priority, which means that:

  • waste prevention is the first priority
  • preparation of reuse is the second priority, if waste is produced
  • utilising as material if reuse is not possible
  • utilising as energy, if utilising as material is not possible
  • taking to a landfill only if there are no technical or financial resources to utilise it.

Reuse means using the product or a part of it again in its original purpose. Preparation of reuse means that product that have ended up in waste, or their parts are repaired and cleaned, for example pallets or beverage bottles that can then be reused or refilled. Statistics Finland does not collect data of reuse, but the new, stricter EU legislation that aims at monitoring the realisation of circular economy, will require doing so in the near future.

If reuse is not possible, waste should be recycled as materials or, secondarily, utilised as energy. Utilising waste as energy also fits in with the ideas of circular economy, according to which the value of materials should resume as part of the economy as long as possible. Replacing virgin materials with recycled ones decreases the environmental load as it, among other things, cuts down energy consumption.

When utilised as energy, waste is incinerated to produce electricity and heat. In this process, ash and slag are produced and they are waste that need to be processed. Incineration does not completely obliterate the waste with approximately 20–30 per cent left after incineration as ash and slag. These materials can be utilised in construction projects, among other things, but some of them have to be placed in landfills.

The recycling rate reflects the amount of waste produced that is utilised as materials. The larger the share of utilisation as material, the bigger the recycling rate. According to the data dating to 2019, the recycling rate of municipal waste in Finland is 43 per cent.

Waste can be disposed in a landfill only if there are no technical or financial resources to utilise it. In Finland, under one per cent of municipal waste is disposed in landfills today.

A separate collection procedure is in place for taking sorted waste for processing. The statistics reveal that approximately 1.4 million tons of waste produced in a municipal context was collected separately in 2019. This amount has stayed at the same level for several years now.

Statistics are kept on the following categories of separately collected waste: paper and cardboard, biowaste, glass, metal, wood, plastic, electrical and electronic equipment, and other separately collected waste. In practice, other separately collected waste means separately collected waste that does not fall into any of the categories above, i.e. textiles, medicinal substances, paints and chemicals that contain hazardous substances, etc.

The annual collection volumes are highest for paper and cardboard waste and biowaste. This is partly due to their large volumes in the market. In recent years, the amount of paper and cardboard waste has begun to drop, and in 2019 it decreased by a little over ten per cent from the previous year.

The rate of biowaste collection is increasing, but it is also produced in large volumes. Most of the biowaste is composted and digested, and the share of these processes in the utilisation of biowaste has continued to grow every year. Digestion produces bio-gas, and digestate and compost can be used as soil improvers and for landscaping. In 2019, the amount of biowaste collected increased by nearly ten percent from the previous year.

The goal is to utilise separately collected waste as materials and then use them for the production of new materials and packaging according to the philosophy of circular economy. It remains impossible to reuse all waste, even separately collected waste, as materials. Sometimes the incoming waste shipment is of poor quality, contains hazardous substances or it is not worth utilising as materials, in which case it usually ends up in incineration. However, there is an upward trend for the utilisation as material and, in the most recent years, it has been possible to improve the efficiency of plastic and wood waste recycling.

The amount of mixed waste has been on the increase. In 2019, the volume of mixed waste produced totalled over 1.5 million tons. Nearly all mixed waste is utilised as energy, but some recyclable materials can be removed from it in the pre-processing stage.

The materials by Statistics Finland are not flexible enough for the determination of the contents of mixed waste. However, various investigations have shown that significant amounts of biowaste end up in mixed waste, to the degree that it can actually make up over one third of mixed waste. The biowaste contained in mixed waste reduces the amount of energy produced in its incineration.

The studies on the components of mixed waste suggest that in addition to biowaste, it contains significant amounts of plastic, paper and carboard. When placed in mixed waste, these materials that would qualify for separate collection go to waste – literally – and this feeds a situation where virgin materials continue to be needed for the production of materials and goods.

Why is it so important to recycle municipal waste and collect statistics of it?

The collection of statistics on municipal waste is based on legislation and associated obligations. The goal is to recycle 55 per cent of municipal waste by 2025, and 65 per cent by 2035. Even stricter recycling goals apply to packaging waste.

A lot more conscientious recycling will be needed to reach these goals. Instead of incineration, a significantly greater share of the waste should be utilised as materials for the recycling rate – at 43 per cent at present – can take a leap towards the rates set as goals.

To reach the recycling goals, it is a good idea to start where recycling is the easiest. Based on the studies of components of mixed waste, biowaste is in a key role here.

Statistics can help to monitor the achievement of various recycling goals and the success of associated political measures, such as financial steering. The recycling of municipal waste is, however, a lot more than politics, legislation and obligations: it offers each and everyone of us a chance as individuals to make a difference in the state and future of the environment.

The concepts and goals have not been set to annoy people; their purpose is to protect the environment and people. However, decision-making and enacting laws are slow processes that require the harmonisation of different interests, and there can be delays in the way. This is why we also need measures that rely on individual choices: instead of defining concepts, our actions in practice are what really matter.

Now that many of us are spending more time at home, I want to encourage everyone to take a peek in your rubbish bin: the first sorting takes place where the waste is produced, and resuming materials back to the circle of use happens in your own waste cabinet.

Heidi Pirtonen

The writer is a Senior Statistician in Statistics Finland’s Energy, Environment and Greenhouse gas emissions group.

This post was published on the platform "Tieto ja trendit" of Statistics Finland on 10/12/2020 in Finnish.

  • Print page
No comments. Be first.