Finland has been ranked the happiest country in the world by the UN’s World Happiness Report for five straight years. Well, they’ve got evanescent Northern Lights, the sauna culture, and access to Santa’s village. They also have a healthy life expectancy, social supports, low corruption and high social trust. And an impressive “can do” attitude. When the European Union made a commitment to adopt a circular economy—essentially a waste-free economy—to save natural resources and address the climate crisis, Finland got right on it. The EU proposed the circular economy in 2015. By 2016, Finland had a roadmap for it.
Astonishingly, today, now, even as you read this–Finnish school children—from kindergarten through university–are already studying the practicalities of a circular economy. Young children are asked to think of new uses for common objects. Older students investigate how to add repair shops or composting sites to neighborhoods. It won’t be long before these students live what they’ve learned. After all the depressing news about a world covered in plastic and coastlines strewn with trash, we can now imagine a happy place that also has a possibility of a waste-free economy.
We in the US, like most of the world, have a “linear” economy where we take resources, make them into products, and then, at the end of their use, we throw them away as waste. Take plastic straws. You use them once, throw them away, where they sit in a landfill until the end times. In a circular economy, you take waste out of the economic equation. When you make something, that something is never just discarded. It can be repurposed, repaired, or taken apart to make something else. In a circular economy, that straw is made of material that can be reused, such as food-grade stainless steel. After you stop using that straw, you can give it to someone else to use or recycle it. Or it could be made of biodegradable paper which ends up as compost. It does not end up in a landfill. You begin product development with reuse in mind.
The logic of a circular economy has resonated beyond governmental entities. Businesses are also pursuing circular initiatives. Ikea is getting into the second hand furniture business in its home base in Sweden, instituting a buy-back program for gently used Ikea merchandise. Burger King is testing reusable packaging. You pay a deposit for boxes and cups which you get back when you return them. Retailers like Patagonia and North Face are repairing customer clothes or refurbishing returned clothes for resale. Footwear companies are re-engineering sneakers to become recyclable. Adidas describes their new line as sneakers “made to be re-made. If the end can become the beginning, we can help keep products in play and waste out of landfill,” the company says.
For the past 20 years a little village in Japan, Kamikatsu, has committed to zero waste. It’s no small effort. Residents separate items into 45 recycling categories and what is still in pretty good shape goes into a recycling store where you can drop off items or take home anything for free. They manage to recycle or reuse about 80 percent of their trash. Disposing of items like diapers and leather shoes is a problem, as is the growing amount of plastic that makes up the majority of their waste. Japan is the world’s 2nd biggest producer of plastic waste (US plastic production ranking: 1).
In an article by the Guardian about Kamikatsu‘s zero waste effort, a town leader says they depend on businesses and local governments together to make it easier for households to recycle. However, individuals still had a duty to reuse and reduce. “As you can imagine, it’s a lot easier to simply refuse plastic bags than to have to build somewhere to recycle them.”
Refusing plastic bags the next time you shop is a good place to experiment with your own circular economy. Plastic-Free Easton is a citizen-led effort to reduce plastics pollution in Easton. Don’t use plastic bags provided at the store. Use your reusables.
Marion O Arnold