Oy, What a Trip

OFTENTIMES, LITTLE EFFORTS MAKE a big difference. This was proven true on my recent European adventure in Finland. (I was among several environmental journalists who were invited to tour the country's waste and recycling facilities.)

I was somewhat familiar with Scandinavia, so I had preconceived notions of Finnish waste management. The Danes, for instance, are like Midwesterners; they are hard-working and friendly — yet diligent about source separation. International waste magazines led me to believe that the Finns, like other Western Europeans, would be recycling wonders.

After arriving in Helsinki, my Finnish theory seemed to be confirmed. In a cab ride from the airport, I spotted a garbage truck plastered with a big smiley face, which I later learned sometimes appears on hybrid fuel vehicles. But if they're that happy about garbage, what amazing things were they doing with recyclables?

The tour of Corenso United Oy, one of the world's largest manufacturers of coreboard, cores and tubes, illustrated some waste recovery feats. The company uses OCC and mixed waste paper from its parent company's paper making operations, then adds recycled liquid packaging to make its tubes. To further close the loop, Corenso burns used liquid packaging materials to produce energy for its coreboard manufacturing plant, then sells the remaining aluminum to Germany.

The longer I was there, however, I discovered that Finland is not as different from the United States as I thought. Like here, Finland's landfills are fewer and farther between than they were 10 years ago, and tipping fees are increasing. EU requirements reduced Finland's nearly 1,000 disposal facilities to approximately 150. Industries are putting more efforts into developing recovery systems as people generate more waste, transportation costs increase and the country is forced to deal with new waste streams such as e-waste.

While I only saw a slice of the Finnish solid waste industry, the overwhelming theme is that waste solutions often are local. Take the 340 LFGE sites operating in our country; several are based on small landfills that found neighbors who wanted their gas. Columbus, Ohio's Bedford Landfill, for instance, pipes its gas just 1.5 miles down the road to power Lucent Technologies' facilities, which now is saving $100,000 per year in fuel bills.

I traveled across the world to be reminded that solutions to waste problems do not need to involve a network of facilities and a lot of bureaucracy. If you're having trouble finding markets for your recyclables, perhaps you should look at the needs of local businesses and institutions, instead of seeking out a broker to carry the ball to the financial goal line. Because whether you're in Tennessee or Timbuktu, frequently, the people who are successful in this business find solutions in their own backyard.

The author is the editor of Waste Age