The Finn spearheading a charge to make Thailand's rubbish go round in circles
As Finland is the world's first country to launch a national roadmap for its transition to a circular economy by 2025, the northern European nation is encouraging Thailand to adopt the model where resources are continually reused for the sustainable future of our planet.
"It is a new economic model in which materials are not destroyed at the end, but are used to make new products over and over again. Even more than that, consumption is based on sharing rather than owning; for example, you can rent a car or use a public transport service instead of owning one," said Kari Herlevi, the project director of the circular economy focus area at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, which aims to make Finland a role model of sustainability.
Mr Herlevi drew attention to the problem of the current so-called linear economy in which goods are manufactured from raw materials, sold in large quantities, and eventually thrown away.
"We overconsume our [finite] natural resources. We are not living within the planetary boundary. We are using more materials than we should, even in Finland," he told the Bangkok Post at the Finnish Ambassador's residence during his visit to Thailand on Oct 14.
In the face of these challenges, Finland had unveiled the world's first plan to adopt a circular economy, he said.
"We want to challenge the current situation and create a society that maintains the value of materials. We need a better economic system from environmental and economic points of view. In 2016, Sitra created a national roadmap to achieve the circular economy by 2025," he said.
Mr Herlevi is at the helm of the roadmap, and it's his job to implement economic reform and supervise various projects to ensure that Finland will become a carbon-neutral country by 2035.
"I took part in the World Circular Economy Forum [in June this year] to scale up the transition. I am now working on the circular economy playbook for Finnish SMEs and a carbon action pilot to speed up carbon sequestration," he said.
In addition, Mr Herlevi has recently shared views and experiences with Thai experts in the circular economy.
"We had the first discussion, so it's not yet practical cooperation. However, there is a great need in Thailand for improved resource recovery, waste management, transport and plastic recycling systems. Megacities like Bangkok would need circular economy solutions where the value of materials is maintained and inefficiencies could be reduced to bring significant reductions in waste and emissions. This would mean a strong commitment and large investment to change the system," he said.
Having worked in pollution-choked Shanghai, Mr Herlevi encouraged Asian countries to adopt the circular economy model to tackle environmental problems.
"Many national leaders have told me that the mitigation of climate change is too expensive, but it is more expensive to continue on the current path. In fact, the circular economy can cut down on emissions from heavy industries by applying high-value recycling of materials like aluminium, steel, plastic and cement.
"The circular economy can also bring savings on a practical level. For example, consumers can refill to save package costs. Shops could sell goods at lower prices because they don't offer containers. Of course, this doesn't apply to every product and it is not the most effective measure, but it is a practical way to reduce single-use plastic. The circular economy is about doing things differently. We should challenge our industries to innovate," he said.
Mr Herlevi said public demand for a better system is required to push for a circular economy.
"If you don't have political pressure, it is harder to change the current economic model. It is important for the education sector to get involved. In Finland, we have integrated the circular economy in all levels of education. Of course, it is a slow road, but it is necessary to include the circular economy in the national education system," he said.
Moreover, strong leadership and strong regulations are needed for such reform, he added.
"If there is no regulation, it is very hard to install a better system. You need top-down and bottom-up approaches. As consumption is concentrated in the city, you need a leader who really understands the situation. Individuals can do their part, but if the system is not working, it is almost impossible to do the right thing," he said.
When asked about climate youth movements, Mr Herlevi voiced his support, saying the young will bear the brunt of the future even if they make the least impact on the environment.
"It is understandable that they are vocal about their needs. Moreover, they are under-represented in politics. I think it is important that Greta Thunberg and others are active and speak their minds. Of course, we need to move from discussion to action. Policymakers should act according to the Paris Agreement," he said.
Most importantly, Mr Herlevi said everybody can contribute to the circular economy in their own way.
"Everybody can do something in their everyday life. You can think about what works for you and start from there. Have a positive mindset. Think about how you eat, live and travel. Is there anything you can change?" he said.
Finland is known for its waste-sorting. Some Finns have up to seven bins at home. Like them, Mr Herlevi has made an effort to lead a circular life.
"I live in a house partly made of wood. I have installed solar panels and an underground heating and cooling system. I also recycle plastic, compost food waste and use the train to commute to work. [However] when you have a family, you tend to generate more waste as a household and reducing consumption is more challenging," he added.