A growing number of governments, from the municipal to the international, have thrown their weight behind the idea. But Finland's model looks to be the most robust and likely to be the first 'waste free' nation.
The E.U. launched its action plan for the transition to a circular economy in 2015, then updated it in 2020 to encourage companies to design products - from laptops to jeans - so that they last longer and can be more easily repaired. The European Parliament has now passed a resolution demanding additional measures that would allow it to adopt a fully circular carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Some member states have also drafted similar plans at the national level.
Among them, Finland stands out for the comprehensiveness of its approach. Back in 2016, it became the first to adopt a national “road map” to a circular economy - a commitment it reaffirmed last year by setting targeted caps on natural-resource extraction. Like other nations, Finland supports entrepreneurship in creative reuse, or upcycling (especially in its important forestry industry), urges public procurements that rely on recycled and repurposed materials, and seeks to curb dramatically the amount of waste going to landfill.
But from the beginning, crucially, the country of 5.5 million has also focused on education, training its younger generations to think of the economy differently than their parents and grandparents do. “People think it’s just about recycling,” says Nani Pajunen, a sustainability expert at Sitra, the public innovation fund that has spearheaded Finland’s circular conversion. “But really, it’s about rethinking everything - products, material development, how we consume.” To make changes at every level of society, Pajunen argues, education is key - getting every Finn (from kindergarten upwards) to understand the need for a circular economy, and how they can be part of it.
A pilot program to help teachers incorporate the notion into curriculums in 2017 “just snowballed,” says Pajunen. “By the end of the two years, 2,500 teachers around the country had joined the network - far more than we had directly funded.”
It’s an uplifting change from the catastrophe and dystopia that often characterizes education about sustainable development, says Anssi Almgren, who helped design the curriculum for the city of Helsinki. “Children have so many great ideas, and we wanted to enable them to think about solutions.”
In a nation whose education system, considered by many to be the best in the world, rests heavily on experiential learning (and not at all on homework, which is practically non-existent), the solutions-based approach of studying circular economy adapts to all levels of formal education.
Already, by the time kids reach university, their grounding in circularity is strong enough that they can apply the principle to advanced research.
Finland accepts it still has a long way to go. Although the amount of waste going to landfill has decreased so dramatically in the past two decades as to be almost negligible, Finns are actually producing more waste per capita than they were a few years ago - they’re just turning it into something else. “In that sense, we are still living in the linear model,” says Sitra’s project director for circular economy, Kari Herlevi. “We’re better at recycling, but we have not been able to turn the tide fully.”
Finland is seeking to position itself as a model for other countries; to that end, Sitra has published guidelines to help other nations develop their own circular-economy road maps, and has begun collaborating with the African Development Bank to further steps toward circularity across that continent. But its unique combination of small population, political will, a muscular entrepreneurial culture and that strong education system suggests that any country seeking to follow in its footsteps is going to need to look beyond merely phasing out landfills and funding cool startups to a bigger, more holistic picture.
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