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Finland slow to give up plastic bag habit

On average, each person in the country still used nearly 160 disposable plastic bags last year.

Kaksi nuorta naista katselee vaatteita kaupassa.
Efforts to reduce the use of plastic bags in Finland were set out by the Plastic Bag Agreement in 2016. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

People living in Finland have been slow to change the practice of using plastic bags to carry purchases from shops, according to information collected by the non-profit service company Finnish Packaging Recycling (Rinki).

Last year, shoppers in Finland used more than 860 million plastic bags, a decrease of almost 90 million in comparison to the previous year. However, the average number of plastic bags used was 68 per person, which is only three less than the per-person usage in 2017.

Efforts to decrease the usage of plastic bags are set out by the terms of the Plastic Bag Agreement, signed in October 2016 by the Finnish Commerce Federation and the Ministry of the Environment. The agreement is rooted in the EU Packaging Directive, which requires member states to take action aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags.

The very slight decrease in usage means there is still a long way to go to for Finland to reach the goals set out in the agreement, which is to have a maximum of 40 disposable plastic bags per person in 2025. Reaching that target will be challenging, according to the federation's lead expert Marja Ola, but at least Finland is moving in the right direction.

"There's still time. We were delighted at how fast this started. With a reduction of three bags [per person] each year, we would be close to 40,” Ola says.

Reduction in use of lighter plastic bags

The 40-bag target does not apply to lightweight plastic bags which are commonly found in supermarket produce aisles, but their consumption is also reported to have decreased. In 2017, about 102 of those bags were used per person, but last year fell to 89 bags.

As a result, the total annual use of plastic bags by people living in Finland has decreased from 173 to 157 per person.

According to Rinki, factors which have led to the reduction in the use of plastic bags include their removal from points of purchase, the increased supply of alternative options, and changes in consumers' purchasing behaviour of fruits and vegetables - in particular, the carrying of peelable fruits and vegetables without the use of a plastic bag.

Stores must offer more alternatives

Within the S Group's grocery and other retail stores which are involved in the Plastic Bag Agreement, sales of plastic bags decreased by six million last year.

"In Sokos stores, plastic bags must now be paid for, and this has led to a steep decline in their consumption", explains Senja Forsman, Corporate Responsibility Manager at the S Group. "In general, there are certainly many other reasons for the decline: consumer awareness has increased, and plastic bags have become more viable and therefore more likely to be used."

In the K Group's grocery stores, sales of plastic bags decreased by three million last year compared to 2017. Additionally, 69 million fewer lighter plastic bags were used as their availability at the cash counter was reduced. The smaller bags are no longer on display at the checkout, but customers can request one if needed.

"Initially, some customers reacted negatively to the reduced availability of the lighter plastic bags. There is no more negative feedback, as everyone now understands that small bags are not always available, but that there is still a need for them," says Timo Jäske, Corporate Responsibility Manager of the K-Group Grocery Store.

Jäske believes that big steps are needed to reach the 2025 goal of the Plastic Bag Agreement.

"A good start has been made, but stores must develop their operations and offer alternatives."

Forsman, Jäske's equivalent at the S Group, agrees with this outlook.

"I sincerely hope that the reduction will be achieved, but it will require hard work and action," Forsman adds.

Finnish scientists developing new alternative to plastic

One possible solution which could help accelerate the reduction of plastic bag usage in Finland might come from research published on Monday by Aalto University and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

In a joint project, researchers glued together cellulose fibres extracted from wood with a silk protein found in spider webs. The result was a rigid and durable material which could be potentially used in the future, as a replacement for plastic, as well as for bio-based composites, medical applications and textile industry products.

Story continues after photo.

Nestemäisestä, siirapinomaisesta silkkiproteiinista syntyy vahvaa ja joustavaa kuitua.
Researchers discovered that the combination of cellulose and silk protein produced a strong, elastic fibre. Image: Eeva Suorlahti / Aalto-yliopisto & VTT

According to Markus Linder, an Aalto University professor who led the research, nature offers great raw materials for developing new products. The advantage of both cellulose and silk over plastic is that they are bio-degradable.

"We just need to be able to reproduce these good qualities found in nature," Linder says.

The spider silk used in the study did not come from a natural source, but was made by researchers using synthetic DNA and bacteria.

"Because we know the structure of its DNA, we can copy it and use it to make chemically similar silk protein molecules that are in the spider web. The DNA has all that information ready," Linder further explains in the press release.

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