In the quest for a more sustainable future, the Finnish city of Lahti has taken a remarkable step with an innovative pilot program called the Textile Deposit scheme. This incentivized recycling program aims to encourage locals to actively sort and recycle their textile waste instead of sending it to the landfill. 

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Inspired by Finland’s successful deposit system for beverage containers, the Textile Deposit has been making waves with its impressive results and potential for wider implementation. It works by offering citizens a small reward for their efforts. In this case, the prizes are coffee vouchers and passes to the local pool. It’s enough motivation to get the job done. During the initial pilot program, textile returns catapulted to levels 500% higher than without the incentives.

Related: Bottle recycling in Oregon hits 90 percent record high 

The birth of the textile deposit pilot program

As a leading environmental city and the European Green Capital of 2021, Lahti is committed to becoming a zero-waste city by 2050. With these long-term goals in mind, administrators launched the Textile Deposit scheme as an experimental project to explore whether small incentives could significantly boost the recycling rate of textile waste

“As a pioneer in urban environmentalism, Lahti has set a goal of being a waste free city by 2050. The textile deposit is a great example of an everyday innovation that directly aims to minimize the amount of waste and showcases the potential of discarded textiles as a raw material for industries and design,” said Veera Hämäläinen, the communications director for the City of Lahti.

Textile waste is a massive worldwide problem, as evidenced by the mounds of clothing left behind as a result of fast fashion and other consumption. But this doesn’t have to be the case because clothing and household linens can be converted into recycled fibers for countless applications. 

As a whole, the country of Finland has launched into a commitment to remedy this environmental issue. At the beginning of the year, it implemented legislation that required cities and municipalities to make separate collection bins for textile waste publicly available. The pilot program in Lahti was an extension of that policy aimed at encouraging high use rather than simply providing a drop point. 

The rollout of the textile deposit system

The city of Lahti collaborated with Salpakierto, a municipal company responsible for waste management in the region, to set up six collection points for textile waste.

In the past, a moderate number of people used the receptacles for textile collection, with each location regularly gathering around 70 kg of donated fabrics each week. Since the introduction of the Textile Deposit scheme, those same locations have begun collecting 350 kg of materials — a staggering 500% increase.

Hämäläinen expressed excitement about the results saying, “The Textile Deposit has been a runaway success. The results we’ve seen are a positive signal for systemic incentives for recycling. A nationwide deposit-based recycling system for textiles could give a significant boost to the recycling rate. In Finland, we’ve seen it with bottles and beverage cans, their recycling rate is well above 90% – could these kinds of incentives be applied across the board?”

Organizers hope so. The plan is to roll out separate collection receptacles for textile waste beyond Finland and across the EU by 2025. Mirroring the pilot incentive program success in Lahti could substantially increase the success of recycling efforts when they become widely available. 

“Our future depends on a circular economy, but it can’t just be the consumers’ responsibility to take care of recycling. With this pilot we want to ask what countries, cities and companies can do to help make recycling easier and more attractive to people. Deposits have worked well before, maybe there could be one for textiles in the future,” said Kimmo Rinne, development manager at Salpakierto.

Future industry opportunities

As Finland moves towards a circular economy for textiles, it also adds a new industry stream to the market. The Textile Deposit program coordinators reference research on the potential for future opportunities in the industry saying, “According to a report by McKinsey & Company, fiber-to-fiber recycling at scale could be achieved by 2030, creating a new and sustainable circular industry in Europe.”

A sustainable recycling model

Like Finland, many other locations have initiated bottle deposits to encourage similar behavior. In the United States, bottle returns began in Oregon in 1971 and have spread to only 10 states since that time. The idea is simple: charge the customer a small amount when they buy an item in a recyclable container, then refund that money when they return the container. It’s a highly effective practice that offers an incentive without additional costs so it stands to reason we could scale the idea not only to textiles, but to all types of recyclable items. 

The positive reinforcement creates a shift in consumer behavior that we desperately need while we battle pollution and waste around the globe. 

The bigger picture in Lahti

As the Textile Deposit scheme continues to inspire positive change in Lahti, the city is also launching a national design competition to find innovative uses for discarded textiles. This competition, organized in collaboration with the Sustainable Lahti Foundation, LAB University of Applied Sciences and Salpakierto, aims to foster creativity and entrepreneurship in the circular economy and offer a future for the textile recycling industry.

+ Salpakierto Ltd 

Images via City of Lahti