Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taking Out The Trash, Finnish Style

We have, behind our coat closet, a narrow enclosed space where our sauna used to be. That was before we did a big house renovation almost ten years ago. I call it “the pantry”, since we keep various foodstuffs there, among other things. It is also were we collect our recycling, and taped to the wall is a piece of paper, you might say an improvised "recycling chart", to help me keep track of plastics.

My "Energy Waste for Dummies" visual aid.

I created this little visual aid back when my daughter became involved in her school’s ympäristöraati (environmental council). She wanted to make sure that we sorted all our plastic refuse properly for energy waste. She was amused at the time that I would need any printed guideline for this little task, since the basic rule comes down to this:  all categories of plastic could be put in the big cardboard box we used for energy waste except for one type, “Number 3” plastics. This is polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

At the time, only the other six recyclable types of plastic could safely be disposed of as energy waste. This meant they could be burned in electric power plants, specifically “waste-to-energy” plants that use such trash for fuel, an overall appealing alternative to burning fossil fuels.

PVC, because of its high chloride content, was different. Incinerating it in Finland's current WtE plants would result in unacceptably high levels of dioxins, one of the more hazardous of chemical pollutants. Instead of being mixed in with our energy waste, PVC needed to go in our regular trash to be hauled away and buried in a landfill.

While we haven’t normally accumulated more than our share of energy waste, which consists mostly of food containers and such, the box in our “pantry” often overflowed well before we got around to emptying it. This was because there weren’t really many places to take it, unlike regular recycling.

According to my very unscientific observations, Finns are avid recyclers. I take it to be part of the nature-loving, conscientious, and thrifty character of Finns. In our house, we fit in very well into that stereotype.

I’m not really sure how recycling is organized in metropolitan America, since I’ve never lived in any US city of any size (no bigger than, say, 70,000), and even that was some 30 years ago. Still, my impression is that recycling for most Americans is often a curbside affair, with folks putting their paper, glass, what not, out on the sidewalk for scheduled pickups.

They don’t do that here, at least not in Helsinki. Instead, there are public ekopisteet (eco points), large dumpster-like bins for household recycling strategically scattered around the city.

Our local ekopiste, on one of the rare sunny days this winter.

You generally don’t have to go far to find one. In the back lot of a grocery store a five-minute walk from us is a 15-meter-long (50-foot) row of dumpsters for cardboard (kartonki), paper, small metal, colored glass, clear glass, and used clothes (for donation to two different charities). But nothing for energy waste.

There’s a second, smaller ekopiste, also a five-minute walk away, for just paper and donated clothes. Plus, most apartment complexes have their own, private ekopisteet. Like I say, they're not hard to find.

Because we make regular visits to these local ekopisteet to unload our latest accumulation of paper, cardboard, glass and metal, there isn’t that much left to go into the normal trash container under our sink.

In fact, because we also compost all our veggie waste, we manage with having our sidewalk garbage can (240 liters, or some 60 gallons) emptied only every four weeks. (In Helsinki, you can choose how frequently the garbage truck comes by. Four weeks is the maximum interval.) The monthly garbage pick-up has always worked fine for us, and that was even when all three kids were still living at home.

Energy waste was the only part of the recycling routine that has been less than convenient, and that’s mostly been down to the issue of what to do with it.

Generally, there have been surprisingly few places in Helsinki where you could drop off energy waste, and these were mostly in the parking garages of some cross-town shopping malls that we didn’t often frequent.

That changed last September. Alongside the Porvoontie highway in Vantaa, sits a strangely modern-looking, massive blue-toned building, a new waste-to-energy power plant, the biggest in Finland.

Vantaa Energy says its new plant, fed with household garbage from the wider Helsinki area, will reduce the company’s consumption of fossil fuels by 30% while providing not only electricity for Vantaa, but also almost half of the city’s district heating.

I’ve read that a number of America’s biggest cities also use district heating (where the heating for entire neighborhoods is piped in from a centralized source), but I have no idea how widespread it really is. I can’t recall ever hearing of its use anywhere in Georgia, at least not on a large scale. But then again, having enough heat isn’t usually much of a concern in a state known for its long, sweltering summers.

In Finland, where the only thing sweltering (and sometimes long) are its saunas, about half of the homes are heated this way.

Our house, built in 1980 when the subdivision that now surrounds it on one side didn’t exist yet, is off the grid in that sense. We supply our own heating, previously with an oil-burning furnace that of course relied on liquid hydrocarbons pumped from the ground and delivered every year or so to our home by truck.

When we did the big renovation almost a decade ago, we could have chosen to also tap into the district heating that warms the row houses across the street.

The neighborhood's other ekopiste.

Instead, we nudged ourselves even a bit more off the grid and switched to a source of heat closer to home. In fact, right beneath our home. In the ground, no less. We had a geothermal system installed, provided by a transplanted Canadian who has set up what is apparently a thriving business selling earth-heating systems here.

It works great. It keeps our house plenty warm enough in winter (at our normal setting of 20 degrees C, or 70 Fahrenheit). 

That is, unless the weather outside turns especially cold, something like -20C (-5F), for more than a day or two. Then we have to switch on the system’s electric back-up heating to get some extra BTUs into the radiators. This year, that hasn’t been necessary even once.

We don’t generate our own electricity, of course, but we have some control over where it comes from. We buy our power from one of the many companies here that provide it only from renewable sources, which last year accounted for over a third (36%) of the 68 terawatt hours generated in Finland. The comparable figure for the US is 12%.

Though not blessed with the mountainous terrain of, say, Norway (which despite being an oil-producing country gets nearly all its electricity from hydropower), Finland still generates more than half of its renewable energy from water. Most of the rest comes from burning wood waste, mostly byproducts from the forestry and papermaking industries. Wind power is negligible, so far.

Another third of Finland’s power comes from fossil fuels, mostly coal and gas (for the US that’s 67%). You could also arguably throw into this category one of the fasting growing sources of fuel – peat. While not exactly a “fossil” fuelnot yet anywaypeat grows so slowly in the abundant bogs of Finland that it’s hard to think of it as “renewable”. It’s considered one of the dirtiest sources of energy here.

The cleanest source, at least in terms of greenhouse gasses, made up the remaining third of power production last year. That's nuclear power. Finland’s reliance on nuclear is a bit higher than the EU average (27%), but lower than neighboring Sweden (43%) and much lower than atomic powerhouse France (73%). And it’s way ahead of nuclear-shy America, which gets only 20% of its electric needs from splitting atoms.

Graphic by Tomia

With the opening of Vantaa Energy’s new plant, even my family has become a tiny source, sometimes a smelly one, of power, as our humble household garbage is now destined to help turn some giant turbine just off Porvoontie.

And because the new plant is also designed to burn even PVC cleanly (so we’ve understood), Type 3 plastic is no longer a concern for us. We can now just lump it in with all our other refuse, instead of letting it spill out all over the pantry.

Maybe I could also finally take down my improvised recycling chart and toss it in the trash...ah, I mean, in our recycling.


  1. Well, strictly speaking I'm a bit sceptical that burning the energy waste would reduce fossil fuel usage one bit. I would think it rather increases it because those plastics are probably mostly made with oil as the original raw material instead of contemporary biological sources and because plastics have a lower energy content.
    I wish the EU would pass a roadmap for transitioning to biological sources of plastic. That could have a nice spill-over effect WRT fossil fuels (along with a carbon tax or nullify most of the awarded carbon credits that set the price for carbon so pathetically low).

    1. I suppose you’re right that, in a sense, burning plastics is using just another (though less direct) form of fossil fuels. Still, I would think that using such waste as fuel would offset the amount of oil needed by some reasonable amount.

      Anyway, the alternative for the plastic waste in this case would be burial in a landfill, and I tend to like the burning option better. Otherwise, when it comes to the need for smarter policies on and carbon taxes and bioplastic, yes, I couldn’t agree more.

  2. We have the curbside recycling here in Matthews, NC. My impression is that it's all used for making new plastics, glass, and paper. Nothing for creating electricity.

    They did have a trash burning power plant here in the county. It was built at great expense and then never used. The property was purchased by a corrupt city councilman who resigned his seat and then bought the property as soon as he resigned. Thus, he broke no law and could not be prosecuted. The plant itself was dismantled and the property sold for an insane amount of profit.

    I know of the system you use to warm and cool your home, but I have never seen one in action.

    1. One thing that the owners of the new plant in Vantaa emphasized is that it’s not a substitute for recycling. They want to use the trash that people don’t normally recycle. In fact, I’d wager that most folks in Helsinki don’t even know about the new plant, and so keep on recycling just as before. Part of the beauty is that their garbage now goes to generate electricity without them having to do anything different or even being aware of it.

      That’s a shame about the WtE plant in your county, and such a senseless waste of money. And too bad that the councilman managed to profit from it in that way.

      Are you talking about the ReVenture Park plant? I was curious about how something like that could happen, so I googled it. One thing that surprised me was how widely it was opposed by local environmental groups. Is that one reason it was never put in use? It makes me wonder if there’s generally opposition in the States to these kind of plants. Or was there something about this particular one that was environmentally unacceptable? Still, if the emissions are within EPA limits, I can’t see why burning trash isn’t better than burying it. Of course, that depends on how much land you have available for burying stuff.

    2. I think one of the reasons it was never used is that it was built across the street from the hospital where my wife works. Why would they build a trash-burning power plant less than 100 yards from a hospital?! I've always suspected it was intentionally created to fail.

      There was initial talk of prosecuting the councilman, but there was nothing anyone could legally do. He was privy to the sale, realized he had the cash to buy the place, realized that if he resigned then there was no legal conflict of interest, and made sure his ass was covered before he acted. He made the score of a lifetime and flew the coop.