Debris Sea: Tackling Finland’s Plastic Waste Problem

Some Finnish bars and restaurants are moving faster than others to ban single use plastics in their operations, and switch to more environmentally-friendly products.

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File picture of plastic waste floating in the water / Credit: iStock

More than 8 million tonnes of plastics ends up in the world’s oceans every year.

According to the United Nations, more than 80% of all litter in the oceans is plastic, and we dump the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic in the water every single minute.

The statistics are startling enough, but it’s the images of turtles ensnared in discarded plastic; or whales dead on a beach with a stomach full of plastic waste, or penguins living on an island of plastic debris that really hammer home the extent of the problem.

The Baltic Sea around Finland’s coast might not be plagued with plastic the way other seas and oceans are, but it’s still an issue.

“It is a problem in the sense that you find plastics everywhere. You can still see it in the Baltic when you find micro plastics in water samples” says Professor Marko Reinikainen, Director of the Tvärminne Zoological Station near Hanko, where scientists study marine ecology in the Baltic.

Speaking by phone from Greece, Professor Reinikainen says the scale of the problem in the Mediterranean is much more severe.

“I realised in Greece it’s a whole different magnitude of problem here. I was just snorkeling and you can see the plastic, see just how bad it is. I think we are more aware of it in many countries around the Baltic Sea, and we have good practice for handling our garbage, and globally speaking it’s comparatively small problem in the Baltics” he explains.

Plastic waste isn’t biodegradable. So it floats on the surface as debris, or sinks to the bottom of the sea. Over time, pieces of plastic are ground down smaller and smaller until they enter the food chain when fish and other marine life ingest the micro plastics.

“I guess you could find some bacteria that can degrade it, but they wouldn’t occur in nature” says Reinikainen.

File picture of plastic straws at an ABC service station restaurant / Credit: News Now Finland

Restaurant Plastic 

Single use plastics from restaurants and bars have been highlighted as particular contributor to the plastic waste problem. That’s things like straws, lids, plates or cutlery which are used by one customer once, then discarded.

Countries and individual companies are tackling the problem.

France passed a law which comes into force in 2020, to ensure that plates, cutlery and cups are made of materials that are biologically sourced, and able to be composted.

In the UK, McDonald’s uses 1.8 million plastic straws every day, and recently announced they would replace them with biodegradable paper straws by 2019, after a customer campaign.

But McDonald’s Finland has no plans to follow their UK counterpart’s example.

“We are very much interested in what is going on in the UK, and we are watching how UK customers are taking it, and hopefully we can look into it in the future” says Heli Ryhänen, from McDonald’s Finland.

“I think our customers in Finland, they are interested in moves like this. They are expecting companies to make such moves. Let’s see how it develops when we get the first results from the UK” she tells News Now Finland.

Finnish Fast Food Response 

While McDonald’s in Finland might not be rushing to replace their plastic straws with paper straws, their fast food rivals at Hesburger have already made some impressive progress to cut down on plastic waste.

“We are concerned about the growing amount of plastic waste that ends up in the environment. For years our policy has been to give out straws and lids only upon request” says Hesburger spokesperson Heini Santos.

The Finnish restaurant chain also uses biodegradable cups made of corn for their smoothies, and wooden sticks for stirring coffee.

“This spring we removed all straws from the condiment stations in our restaurants. We are actively looking to replace plastic straws with a more ecological substitute, and we have already tested cardboard straws in our restaurants in the Turku area” she says.

Hesburger started operations in 1980, and now has nearly 270 restaurants in Finland, with operations in nine other countries including Estonia, Germany and Iran. The company’s commitment to being environmentally friendly doesn’t just stop at the single use plastics. Staff uniform shirts are made from recycled plastic, and fabric waste from the textile industry; and staff aprons are made of cloth that can be recycled to last a quarter of a century.

“We put solar panels on the roof of all new restaurant buildings, and also install them in older restaurants. We use wind energy and geothermal heating, offer free charging stations for electric cars […] and we fully compensate the remaining carbon footpring of three of our products” Heini Santos tells News Now Finland.

Information sign at a Scandic Hotel informing customers about a switch from plastic straws / Credit: Robin Häggblom

Bars And Restaurants Drop Plastic

If you order a drink at a Scandic hotel in Finland this summer, you might see a sign that explains the company is doing away with plastic straws and stirrers. They’ll save an estimated 1.3 million plastic straws, and 120,000 cocktail sticks each year.

And Radisson Blu hotels are doing the same. Starting in March they replaced plastic straws with biodegradable corn starch versions.

But not all Finnish restaurants and bars are making the switch away from plastic.

The Royal Ravintola group has dozens of well-known restaurants and bars in its portfolio, like Hanko Sushi, Sandro, Teatteri and Strindberg, and is still figuring out its strategy.

“We are also looking into either replacing or giving up on the plastic straws” says marketing director Joonas Mäkilä, although they have made some in-roads already.

“We have replaced plastic straws in Löyly to paper and biodegradable options, and we will continue to look into our other [properties] as well” he says, adding that in general, the group’s restaurants have a wider environmental strategy in place covering everything from green energy to waste management.

Cleaning Up Sea Plastic

With Finnish restaurants, bars and hotels now realising the waste hazards of single use plastics in their operations, there is some hope that the amount of plastic waste ending up in the Baltic Sea decreases.

The Blastic Project is keeping a close watch on sea litter levels, and works with organisations that run clean-up campaigns.

Their research shows that 62% of beach litter in Sweden, Finland, Estonia and Latvia is plastics. The organisation highlights international cooperation around the Baltic region, to put in place legislation and monitoring to prevent further plastic waste going into the sea.

“Reducing plastic litter in the marine environment is our common mission and we can all make small choices to prevent littering” Balstic advises on their website.

“The easiest way is to avoid unnecessary use of plastic in packaging, clothing and everyday cosmetics. It is also important to reuse and recycle plastic items and prevent their entry to the environment”.