Zero Waste Challenge interview: Otso Sillanaukee

Our second Zero Waste Challenge interview was with Otso Sillanaukee, who writes the Nollahukka blog in Finnish and English. Otso’s book “Zero Waste – Jäähyväiset jätteelle” will be published in Finnish on the 2nd May 2018. Otso’s enthusiasm for zero waste and the power of individuals is truly contagious, so read on if you want to catch some of his positivity!

Kuvaaja: Oona Pohjolainen

How did you first get into zero waste?

From an early age, I had always recycled everything very carefully and considered that my effort towards caring for the environment. However, I began to grow more anxious over environmental issues. I read more on the subject and watched some documentaries about the health and ecological benefits of a plant-based diet.

I happened to stumble upon zero waste and something just clicked for me. I had looked for something concrete and holistic I could do since as an individual I felt my actions could only have a minimal effect on the big environmental issues I was concerned about. Zero waste offered a solution which spanned across all fields of life. I realised that the changes I made in my own life would build up and influence the big issues.

That was the beginning of a two-year personal project. At first, I was focused only on plastic and how everything seemed to be wrapped in it, so I switched the plastic products I used to recyclable ones. It was only later that I realised some of the alternatives might actually be worse for the environment than plastic. Little by little I started to replace those recyclable throw-away materials with reusable items.

Why isn’t recycling enough? How is zero waste different to that?

We definitely need recycling, it is the 4th R of the zero waste principles [to learn more about the 5 principles of zero waste, see what we wrote on them on the first day of the Zero Waste Challenge!]. However, recycling cannot be the end of our efforts ─ we need to altogether consume less, even of recyclable materials. The best alternative would be reusable items since in a truly circular economy we wouldn’t have anything to throw away because ”waste” and resources products would be recycled indefinitely.

Do individual choices even matter? Isn’t the role of governments and corporate interests much greater?

Individuals as well as businesses, the public sector and the non-profit sector all need to take action if we want to secure a sustainable future for ourselves and our children. The excessive egocentrism of today has distracted us from the idea that we all bear collective responsibility over the environment and our society.

I don’t think any mundane choice is small enough to not care for its impact on the world. The way I think about it, I don’t want to support a business whose products are made unsustainably and wrapped in plastic. Whenever I choose to consume or not consume something, I try to consider whether that choice leads to the kind of world I’d like to live in.

In my case, I began first by simply refusing to buy plastic bottles, plastic bags or take-away cups. Now, two years later, all my non-recyclable waste fits in a glass jar. I couldn’t have thought that was possible, but as they say, little strokes fell great oaks.

I don’t think it’s desirable to think that only governments should bear the responsibility or that these things can only be changed through passing legislation. We won’t be able to change anything if all of us think that our choices don’t matter. Change comes when some portion of the population starts to do things a little differently and that new approach gradually strengthens.

If you think about any big organisations, even those faceless multinational entities, there are people behind all of them. Those individual people mould the organisations through their own behaviour.

We should get rid of the idea that an individual must have an “all or nothing” approach and begin to see our actions as meaningful. Everyone can do something.


How do we get businesses on board with the change?

Businesses have a central role to play in changing things. They will come along when we as consumers shout at them hard and long enough. Businesses need to start thinking about sustainable development, it needs to be considered the basis for business activity. There simply isn’t any room anymore for merely focusing on economic self-interest, as sudden challenges to the way we live seem more and more probable. Taking into account the UN Sustainable Development Goals will secure a company’s future in the long term, and that’s why thinking sustainably is also good for business.

It’s important for individuals to live according to their values since politicians and businesses alike make their decisions based on the stories people tell with their lives. Businesses will do anything to get our money, and politicians will do anything to get our votes, so we can well demand something from them in exchange.

Businesses should be brave enough to challenge the set conventions in their field. A good example of this in Helsinki is Restaurant Nolla, which has organised their practice in a way that minimises their production of waste. Being the first player in the field to do things differently can even become a competitive advantage for a company. Informed customers will certainly find out and come along.

How should sustainability be brought up in education?

I think environmental issues need to be discussed in all fields of education, especially in higher education. We are not going to succeed at creating a sustainable society if only a small bunch of devoted people study these things.

We will undoubtedly face a situation where we need to question the structure of our society and economy, and that needs to be talked more of. I was let down by the minimal treatment of the subject in my business studies. I think the three pillars of sustainability (economy, environment and society) should be integrated into everything and students should be encouraged to mind the growing section of consumers interested in making sustainable choices.

It would also be important to cover these themes as early as possible, ideally in early childhood education. The reality is that not all families have the resources (such as knowledge, interest or economic means) to teach their kids about these things. Schools need to be places where children are told about environmental threats and taught to be good and responsible citizens.

Your book “Zero Waste – Jäähyväiset jätteelle” will be published 26th April 2018. What made you write a book about zero waste?

I had been writing my blog for about 1,5 years when I got asked to write a book on the theme. It was an amazing chance and the process of writing a book proved to be a life-altering experience. Up until then my life had been quite hectic but writing this book made me pause and realise that this actually is really important to me and that I want to spend time on this.

You may recognise many of the tips as something you already do or something your grandparents may have done, as a sustainable lifestyle really doesn’t require any revolutionary actions. I think it’s important to have a book that covers all the basics because that’s how I learned all these things – from reading about and hearing from others. I hope my book will provide a low-threshold approach for others to familiarise themselves with a more sustainable lifestyle.

How do you see the future of zero waste in Finland?

International zero waste movements often focus solely on reducing plastic or disposables. At the same time, it might be considered agreeable to drive to a supermarket to buy meat in one’s own glass jar. There’s a sort of discrepancy there, and I hope in Finland we could take the thinking to a higher level and avoid narrow mindsets. I hope we could move beyond just focusing on the trashcan and talk also about emissions and the carbon footprint our lives produce.

Finland already has a strong circular economy campaign going on: we are the first country in the world to have an official “circular economy roadmap” (created by Sitra). Finland could become a pioneer country for solutions in more sustainable life and society.


Check out Otso’s Nollahukka blog here!


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