City consortium aims to become zero-waste, emissions-free zones

Growing numbers of Finnish cities are aiming to become zero-waste and carbon-neutral zones. The most recent to announce its greener intentions is Turku, which has set its sights on being completely zero-waste and emission-free by 2040.

Sights like this landfill will soon become a thing of the past if the group of four cities achieves its goals. Image: Mika Puska / Yle

The resource-wise cities network led by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra is looking for new opportunities to exploit innovation – also with an eye to exporting.

In the Turku region heat and solids are recovered from wastewater before it’s pumped out to sea. Waste processing firm Biovakka works with industry, communities and agriculture to produce renewable energy and recycled nutrients. At its Topinoja waste treatment centre methane is extracted from waste solids and the treated residue is then sent to building sites.

“Biovakka receives the municipal sewage sludge from the waste water treatment plant and produces biogas and recycled nutrients," explains process engineer Erkka Laine.

The gas is used to produce electricity, but methane could potentially be used as fuel for transportation. In the future, nitrogen could also be recovered and used as fertilizer, while purified solids would end up in fields or in construction.

Landfill used minimised

Only about two percent of Turku’s municipal waste ends up in landfill. While municipalities are increasingly seeking alternatives for renewing and recycling materials and Turku is currently dismantling an old incineration plant, Salo has plans for a new incineration plant. Other waste incineration plants in Turku are currently being wound up.

Sitra’s lead specialist Lari Rajantie says that the focus should be on recycling materials and using renewable energy rather than constructing new incineration plants.

Turku is also aiming to reduce its production of greenhouse gases. A new power plant to be constructed in Naantali - home of Finland's iconic Moomin World - would provide district heating for the Turku region.

"Turku is not carbon-neutral at the moment. We have succeeded in significantly increasing production of renewable energy and will double that by the year 2020," says Turku city development manager Risto Veivo, adding that renewable energy will be a major component of the city's energy system.

Towards carbon-neutrality

Jyväskylä, Lappeenranta, Forssa and Turku all want to limit greenhouse gas emissions to a minimum. A central part of achieving this goal will involve transitioning toward electricity-powered transportation. City planners expect that motorists will increasingly use electric cars if they have access to sufficient recharging points and even public transportation will get a new lease on life.

"Electricity is becoming increasingly important for private car owners and also in public transportation here. The first electricity-powered bus will most likely begin to serve commuters in 2016, that's what we're aiming for and then we will try to further develop riding and walking and public transportation use," Veivo adds.

Housing and construction solutions will also see a growing focus on energy-efficiency, such as the Skanssi housing development in Turku.

"In Skanssi we are almost the first in the world to implement a bi-directional low-temperature district heating network solution in an area where we can efficiently produce heating using energy sources like the sun and geothermal energy and this is a major step forward," Veivo remarks.

Consumer choices also matter

Achieving the ambitious green goals will also mean that ordinary consumers will have to consider adopting more waste-free habits. This will mean making changes in food choices and emphasising local food producers. Retrofitting older buildings to become more energy-efficient will also help reduce costs and city officials would be happy to see residents choose public transportation over using their own cars.

Officials in Jyväskylä meanwhile, have tried to encourage people to move from detached homes into smaller units in apartment complexes in the city centre. People do have room to consume less, but overall they won't need to congregate in urban centres, says Sitra's Rajantie.

"We have searched high and low for examples of how these choices can be made so that it becomes pleasant, easy and fun - and even more affordable - for people to make more sustainable choices themselves. If we are able to do this, then people and businesses will join the effort. That's just what we are looking for and cities can do their part by encouraging and actively supporting such choices," Rajantie adds.

Technology developing but not being used

Sitra is itself supporting the initiative taken on board by the cities and a working group from Turku has already charted a roadmap to reach its goals. However the pioneers point out that Finland seems to be slow when it comes to putting new technologies to use.

"In this regard we have been somewhat slower than in developing technology and we hope that Turku and the other pioneer cities will get something done. At the same time they will create opportunities for businesses to try these technologies in practice and by so doing we may develop more global competitiveness," the Sitra expert notes.

Government officials, including likely incoming Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, have called for the bio-industry and clean tech sectors to take the lead in resuscitating the Finnish economy. However that goal will prove a hard nut to crack if Finns themselves are reluctant to make use of the latest innovations.