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Amid growing concerns over global warming, plastic in our oceans and the problems of electronic waste, there are some developing solutions. In Finland Kierrätyskeskus (re-use centres) have been going since the early 1990s. Owned by the city council, but run independently, there are now eight shops in and around Helsinki offering second-hand, repaired and upcycled items. Everything is donated by the public, via drop off centres, or at the shops or via home collection. All profit is used to improve local environmental and waste services.

Even though it’s a cold March day, hovering just around zero degrees, at 9am prompt the Nihtisillan store, in Espoo, opens. There is a small queue outside, waiting to see what is on the ‘Free Items’ shelves. For some people this is a lifeline, for others a bargain.

Inside is the main drop off area, staff are already busy sorting items left overnight. The goods are then taken to different departments for further inspection and sorting. Inside there are repair shops for bicycles, clothing, sports equipment, housewares, furniture, electrical and electronics and a handicrafts area. Once repaired or reused, the items are placed in the shop, or posted online for sale. Some goods, like white goods (fridges, freezers and washing machines) are taken to another store, in Kyläsaari, to be repaired.

Around 250 people work at Nihtisillan, the largest shop run by Kierrätyskeskus. About half of the employees do repairs, the others work in the shop or offices. It is also a social enterprise offering employment to the long-term unemployed and those seeking to re-enter employment. As well as employment, the organisation offers free skills training and language courses (in Finnish and English).

Kyläsaari, the oldest store is much smaller with only 50 employees. This was the first reuse store. It opened in 1990, in a facility that used to be a municipal incineration plant. Much of that site is now turned over to more sustainable forms of recycling.

Handicrafts are currently popular in Finland. This provides and number of opportunities. One is a new product line via another team, Napro. Secondly, it provides an outlet for odd and small items that would otherwise be recycled. A current favourite, and popular with children is keppiheronen, or a hobby horse, which are made and then used in ‘competitions’.

Asko an electronics repairer, explains that “many faulty items are often due to dirt or one simple component, such as a capacitor having burned out”. He further explains that “it is usually because the manufacturer has used a cheap and poor-quality source”. Having diagnosed the fault and completed the repair, it is tested before being sold with a warranty. Each item comes with a certificate explaining what has been done to it.

Kyläsaari, the oldest store is much smaller with only 50 employees. This was the first reuse store. It opened in 1990, in a facility that used to be a municipal incineration plant. Much of that site is now turned over to more sustainable forms of recycling.

Not everything can be repaired or reused. Kaisa, an environmental engineer at the headquarters Pääkaupunkiseudun Kierrätyskeskus Oy, estimates that “of the goods brought in around 60% are directly repaired and reused, a further 30% are unrepairable and sent for materials recycling, at another waste management centre in Vantaa, and only 10% go for energy recovery via incineration. Our aim is to increase the reuse even more and to encourage more people to use this service”.

She indicates that they are also “seeing many more problems in the last few years with donated goods not being repairable or reusable. This is usually due to issues such as the goods being ‘fast fashion’ with poor quality, that cannot easily be reused or upcycled. Or furniture not designed to be reused or taken apart and with components that are difficult to modify, rendering reuse uneconomic”.

The Kierrätyskeskus approach aims to help Helsinki move towards a circular economy, considered by many to be the only real solution to the environmental and sustainability crises.
Entrance and drop off area at Kierrätyskeskus Nihtisillan, in EspooBefore the 9am opening, as queue has formed, waiting for access to the ‘free items’.A bike is taken from the screened drop off area to the bike workshop.  It is one of thousands that will pass through the shop each year.Repaired bikes in storage waiting for saleRepaired and refurbished electrical goods on sale in the Nihtisillan store. All machines come with a statement of the work carried out and a warranty.Repaired camerasThe Kyläsaari store in Northern Helsinki has a cycle for customers to take their goods home.Even an old Commodore 64 gets repaired, complete with games, as it quite collectable, now repaired it is in good condition, so this item is destined to be sold on-line where they can fetch a higher prElectonics repair workshop.   In total around 70,000 electrical and electronic items are repaired each year.The TV repair shop.  Repaired TVs are tested with one downside t - the repairers end up watching reruns of old UK soaps that are shown in Finnish daytime TV.Once repaired, machines are tested on a washing cycle and then cleaned  and dried ready for sale.Dropped off goods are sorted in stages, here newly dropped off items are checked for suitability (all items should be repairable or reusable).Sports good repair workshopIn the workshop bikes are repaired and serviced.  Some with recycled parts, others with new parts.Wooden and furniture items are also recycled and repaired by Plan B, a team focussed on upcycling. Eero and his colleague Babak repair furniture and make use of odd pieces, turning them into upcycledDonated cloth is sorted by colour to help the designers, repairers and upholsterers to create “new” items by upcycling or repairing.Ashenafi is an upholsterer, originally from Ethiopia.  He works in Plan B with Hussein from Afghanistan to create new products with the wood working team.Elena sorts remnants and pieces out for use in Napro handicraft kits.Sina with her keppiheronen made from Napro kits, cinluding an old hockey stick, a single sock, and feltHandicrafts are fashionable in Finland. Napro is another team within Kierrätyskeskus that takes items that cannot be repaired or immediately reused and makes them into handicraft kits, ranging from si