City and local authority solutions: Kierrätyskeskus, Finland

Amid the growing concerns over global warming, plastic in our oceans and the problems of electronic waste, there are those who have steadily been developing solutions. In Finland, Kierrätyskeskus (re-use centres) have been going since the early 1990s. Owned by the city council, but run independently, there are now eleven facilities in and around Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa offering second-hand, repaired and upcycled items. Everything is donated by the public, via drop off centres, or at the shops or via home collection. All profit from the operations is used to improve local environmental and waste services.

March 2019: At 9am prompt the Nihtisillan store, in Espoo, opens. There is an icy chill, but there is already a small queue outside, waiting to see what is on the ‘Free Items’ shelves. For some people this is a lifeline, for others a bargain.

Inside is the main drop off area, where staff are already busy sorting items left overnight. The goods are then taken to different departments for further inspection and sorting. Inside there are repair shops for bicycles, clothing, sports equipment, housewares, furniture, electrical and electronics and a handicrafts area. Once repaired or reused, these items are placed in the shop, or posted online for sale. Some goods, like white goods (fridges, freezers and washing machines) are taken to another store, in Kyläsaari, to be repaired.

Around 250 people work at Nihtisillan, the largest shop run by Kierrätyskeskus. About half of the employees are involved in sorting or repairs, the others work in the shop or offices. It is also a social enterprise offering employment to the long-term unemployed and those seeking to re-enter employment. As well as employment, the organisation offers free skills training and language courses (in Finnish and English).

Kyläsaari, the oldest store, is much smaller with only 50 employees. It opened in 1990, in a facility that used to be a municipal incineration plant. Much of that site is now turned over to more sustainable forms of recycling.  The aim of the Kierrätyskeskus is to prevent materials going to incineration or landfill.

They achieve that be repairing what they can, scavenging unrepairable items for useful parts (as spares) or transforming things into something useful.

Asko an electronics repairer, explains that “many faulty items are often due to dirt or one simple component, such as a capacitor having burned out”. He further explains that “it is usually because the manufacturer has used a cheap and poor-quality source”. Having diagnosed the fault and completed the repair, it is tested before being sold with a warranty. Each item comes with a certificate explaining what has been done to it and the positive environmental impact of re-using it.

Handicrafts are currently popular in Finland. This provides a number of re-use opportunities. A specialist team, Napro refurbish, upcycle and transform items.  Turning them from unrepairable into something useful.  It also provides an outlet for odd and small items that would otherwise have to be recycled. Unrepairable cloths are disassembled, and the cloth remnants, buttons, zips, and beads are packaged to make up ‘handicraft or hobby kits’.  A current favourite, and popular with children is keppiheronen, or a hobby horse, which are made and then used in ‘competitions’.

Not everything can be repaired or reused. Kaisa, an environmental engineer at the headquarters Pääkaupunkiseudun Kierrätyskeskus Oy, estimates that of the goods brought in around 60% are directly repaired and reused, a further 30% are unrepairable and sent for materials recycling, at another waste management centre in Vantaa, and only 10% go for energy recovery via incineration. “Our aim is to increase the reuse even more and to encourage more people to use this service”.

She indicates that they are also “seeing many more problems in the last few years with donated goods not being repairable or reusable. This is usually due to issues such as the goods being ‘fast fashion’ with poor quality, that cannot easily be reused or upcycled. Or furniture not designed to be reused or taken apart and with components that are difficult to modify, rendering reuse uneconomic”.

The Kierrätyskeskus approach aims to help Helsinki move towards a circular economy, considered by many to be the only real solution to the environmental and sustainability crises.

There are many opportunities to create similar capabilities towns and  cities across the world.  Each instance can help us take a step to increase reuse and reduce our negative impact.