Stories of the Finnish Arctic Expertise

A small town wants to change the world

The Finnish centre for industrial circular economy, hailing from Kemi, is working on a national model that will be available for the whole world to use.

This is no small-scale recycling. The industry in Finland produces vast amounts of by-products. It is wise to try to make use of the raw materials as economically as possible. The co-operation between Outokumpu and Tapojärvi Oy results in OKTO-products from the by-products of the Outokumpu ferrochrome and stainless steel mill. Programme manager Kari Poikela from the centre for industrial circular economy, by-products manager of Outokumpu Tornio Eveliina Karjalainen and research and development engineer Annaleena Kostamo from Tapojärvi Oy stand in the middle of heaps of by-products.

A small town in Finnish Lapland, at the northern bottom of the Gulf of Bothnia is home to a centre of circular economy, whose employees want to break out of the small scale. Their goals and tasks are fearless: they want to change the world.

"What we are working on is a great shift in the economic models, a great shift in ideologies and a reform", says Kari Poikela, the programme manager of the centre for industrial circular economy.

The centre for industrial economy works in the industrial development village Digipolis in the town of Kemi. Of course, the centre is not doing its work alone. The national spearhead in developing circular economy is the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. Nani Pajunen, leading specialist in circular economy, confirms that ambitions are high. The goal is to change the global economic model.

On top of that, the centre for industrial circular economy does not work in order to make a profit for it self, but works with the goal that its partners achieve financial benefits. In this spirit, the town of Kemi wants to present itself as the arctic bio capital.

In order to achieve the goals, a picture of what circular economy is must be established. Put simply, circular economy is the extremely economical use of resources and materials, maintaining them in circulation.

When the factories use raw materials, some of the material cannot be utilized in the end product. The process surplus of the materials will remain as a by-product. These by-products are potentially waste. In circular economy, these by-products are ideally reused and they will be refined into new products. There is an aim to reuse all of the by-products.

For a Finn, this may conjure up memories of the post-war reconstruction era. In those days, it was not uncommon that people who were building houses for themselves went to scrap piles of war-era military barracks in order to find nails. The housebuilders then straightened the nails with handtools before using them in their homes.

"After the war people knew how to live with scarcity, but we have forgotten that skill. In fact, today we already live with a scarcity of materials globally", Pajunen reminds us.

The circular economy centre works in the region of Kemi and Tornio and it concentrates on industrial circular economy, as the name of the centre suggests. The starting point is natural, as the region is home to the densest cluster of export industry in Lapland.

The amount of by-products produced by the factories in the region amounts to about 1,7 million tonnes yearly. Divided equally over a year, this equals roughly 130 long-distance lorries a day.

"96 per cent of all of the waste produced in Finland comes from other sources than domestic waste. Much of that is a secondary flow of materials that can be utilized. The local industry wanted to improve the use of its by-products, and that is the cornerstone for the workings of the centre for industrial circular economy centre", the mayor of Kemi, Tero Nissinen, sums.

Even though changing the world is a gargantuan goal, it has emerged little by little. Kemi has provided good examples of the possibilities of circular economy for years. New circular economy products and processes have emerged from the work Digipolis has been leading with circular economy, and they have convinced Sitra firmly enough that Kemi was appointed the leader of the network Finnish circular economy parks. This entails that the model that was developed in Kemi is circulated among the other circular economy parks and the model will be developed through the experiences of other parks. The best bits will be taken from each model and the result will be "the model of circular economy, 2.0". This work is led from Kemi, but its results will be available for whole Finland and internationally.

The programme manager Poikela says that the key to success involves at least three factors. Firstly, the centre for industrial circular economy truly wants to work concretely with the industry. Secondly, the centre has strong expertise in the industries involved. Thirdly, it has the ability to cater to the needs of the industry.

Overall, trust guarantees the scope of action. The centre for circular economy has rounded up a list of all the by-products and their quantities produced in the region. Some information is confidential, but even that information can be dealt with potential producers of upgraded products, if the industry allows it.

It is natural that the factories understand their own processes very well, but developing a comprehensive view of the whole region is somewhat more difficult.

"We see great oppurtunities in symbiotic products. They are products that combine the by-products of more than one field of industry. We have only scratched the surface of the potential in this field", Poikela says.

The know-how accumulated by the centre for industrial circular economy was not created in a vacuum. For instance, Tapojärvi Oy has been operating in the region for a number of years. Tapojärvi refines the ferrochrome slag produced in the process of the Outokumpu ferrochrome plant into products. Some of the material goes back to the Outokumpu’s process after Tapojärvi has refined it. Some of the material will be made into e.g. "OKTO-aggregate", which can be used in soil mechanics as well as an insulating material.

"Tapojärvi Oy has to main business branches, mining and factory services. In factory services we have always worked within the scope of circular economy in different projects, according to the wishes of the client. For example, we have 17 ongoing research and development projects, and 16 of those is exclusively within the field of circular economy", explains Juho Koskinen, the R&D manager of Tapojärvi.

In Koskinen's experience, the centre for circular economy has brought togethert different fields of industry and different people. He accepts the term "enabler" as a good characterization of the activities of the centre. The centre for circular economy has helped on setting up new networks and it has brought up interesting possibilities.

"For example, we have been able to visit the Stora Enso paper mill in Veitsiluoto, Kemi, and it is a totally different experience to actually see their by-products in person. You cannot not read about them in the papers."

Koskinen, too, sees that the bigger players in the region have a significant role in the development of circular economy. Fortunately, they have been active in the Kemi-Tornio region and they want to find refiners for their materials.

"We may have experience about their materials that can be utilized."

Construction materials out of ferrochrome slag. Outokumpu's Tornio by-products manager Eveliina Karjalainen and programme manager Kari Poikela from the centre for circular economy hold in their hands ferrochrome slag, OKTO insulation, which can be used in soil mechanics as well as an insulating material.

Pajunen from Sitra compares her endeavour with the process of trying to steer an ocean liner. The scarcity of materials and the need to protect nature has been well-known for a long time. Now is the time to turn this knowledge into action.

Pajunen sees that in order to change the global economic model our job is to be able to convince the people responsible for economic and trade policies to understand the value of circular economy. Poikela from the centre for circular economy knows, too, that a change will not occur overnight: "There is a long road full of work ahead of us, and it demands perseverance and discipline. I believe that I can work with my efforts toward this change even until I reach retirement age."

Finland is by no means the only country that has been active in developing circular economy. Other countries have put decades of work into it, like the Finnish industrial sector has. Nevertheless, Finnish expertise and pioneer work is highly regarded. During the Davos World Economic Forum 2018, Sitra was honoured as a leading driver of the circular economy in the public sector.

"When China announced that it would no longer accept plastic waste from abroad, New Zealand among others contacted us. They were facing a problem and they were interested in the circular economy know-how that was developed in Finland.

The centre for industrial circular economy has had a strong hand in developing this model. There are, of course, challenges to be met. For example, there is a clear need for more resources. To tackle with that, Kemi intends to seek financing for the work directly through the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020.

Text: Matti Nikkilä
Photos: Nina Susi

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