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Report: Majority of sorted plastic waste incinerated

Yle investigative programme MOT finds that Finland burns most discarded plastic sorted by households.

Erilliskerättyä muovia paaleissa, matkalla kierrätettäväksi.
Finland is shipping these pallets of plastic waste to Germany as domestic processing capacity cannot handle all plastic waste sorted by households. Image: Janne Järvinen / Yle

State-owned energy company Fortum, which runs Finland’s sole plastics recycling facility in Riihimäki, only recycles around a third of all incoming plastic waste, according to Yle investigative programme MOT.

That said, actual recycling levels and those advertised by Fortum don’t add up, MOT found.

Over the past few years, Fortum has said that 75 percent of the household plastic waste it processes is recycled into new raw material--a statement the company still made on its website in January. However, over the past few years, the recycling rate has been significantly lower.

Fortum now reports that in 2019, it managed to recycle some 37 percent of plastic waste arriving on-site in Riihimäki, a figure that has remained largely steady, according to the company. At the Riihimäki plant, household plastic passes through several processing stages, ending in plastic pellets that Fortum sells to manufacturers as raw material.

Kalle Saarimaa, Fortum’s vice president of recycling and waste, denied that the company provided misleading information regarding recycling efficiency, noting that the share of waste repurposed into raw material varies every year.

More supply than demand

Saarimaa said households' enthusiasm to sort plastic waste has outpaced buyer interest in plastic pellets. This has led to low-quality plastic being burned, creating energy used to power district heating systems.

Experts have criticised Finland for urging residents to recycle plastic the country has been unprepared to handle.

Fortum previously said it lacked the capacity to process all of the sorted plastic arriving in Riihimäki, which is why Finland ships some household plastic waste to Sweden and Germany. The company has claimed that transporting plastic long distances is more environmentally friendly than allowing it to degrade in the natural environment.

Saarimaa said he expects Fortum to be able to increase its plastic recycling efficiency to 60-65 percent in the coming years. A report commissioned by Fortum suggested that the company's current recycling level of just 37 percent also helps lowers carbon emissions.

The EU has set a goal of recycling at least half of all plastic packaging on the market by 2025.

EDIT: This story was edited to clarify that Fortum commissioned a report that suggested its current level of recycling helps to lower carbon emissions, and to remove a reference to chemical recycling.

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