The sudden outbreak of the coronavirus in the spring of 2020 created a massive demand for hand cleansing products and face masks in Finland.
Like many companies last March, the sales of Tampere, a natural food company, the Best of the Sons, came to a halt as the pandemic worsened.
At the same time, there was a growing concern in Finland about the availability of hand disinfectants and face masks.
Like many other companies, Son’s Best was laying off staff. At that time, the company’s CEO Nikolas Jokisalo decided to suspend regular production and the company will focus only on the production of hand disinfectants in the coming months.
Within weeks, its production lines bottled disinfectants rather than regular mulled wine and soft drinks.
"It was the right decision. We were able to keep people at work and even hire more people who lost their jobs. At the peak, we produced disinfectant in three shifts," Jokisalo says.
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Larger companies also noted the rapidly growing need for disinfectant. For example, Kiilto Clean Oy, a long-time manufacturer of hand disinfectants, increased its production rapidly last spring. According to CEO Kari Laakso, the decision was important both for the company financially and to ensure the product’s availability on the domestic market.
"Although the year was financially good, the situation would certainly have been more challenging without investment in the production of disinfectants," he told Yle.
Demand for hand disinfectant was reflected in a huge increase in 2020 in the sales figures of supermarket chains and pharmacies.
Yle asked Finland’s largest supermarket chains and the Yliopiston Apteekki pharmacy chain how much hand disinfectants and how many disposable face masks were sold in their stores last year.
S Group, Lidl and Yliopiston Apteekki provided all sales figures. Kesko and Tokmanni do not.
Based on the available data, it can be estimated that in 2020, retail chains alone sold more than 6 million bottles of manual disinfectant. This is a country with a population of 5.5 million.
This amount of hand sanitizer filled approximately more than half of the Olympic-sized pool.
Sales of disposable masks were also high. In the S Group’s supermarkets alone, consumers grabbed about 1.5 million mask packages or about 50 million individual masks. About 6 million masks were sold in Lidl stores.
Because a lot of face masks were ordered from abroad, especially in the early stages of a pandemic, it can be estimated that the actual number of individual masks sold was well over one hundred million.
Waste is not a problem, but rubbish is
According to the recommendations, face masks in Finland end up mainly in mixed waste and eventually in incinerators in power plants. In many parts of the world, the environmental problems caused by disposable masks have been much worse.
The biggest problem with disposable masks in Finland is that they do not always get to the right place. Reports of littering across the country have been common.
Especially in urban centers, public rubbish bins have been filled to the brim in places and face masks have been left on the streets, Jáchym Judl, researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute.
"A face mask litter is a problem, although its extent is difficult to assess. Problems arise if a plastic mask enters the natural environment because it degrades fairly quickly into microplastic," Judl points out.
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Judl adds that it is worth remembering that disposable masks can also be washed and reused.
"The most sustainable solution in terms of carbon footprint would seem to be to wash and reuse a domestically made disposable mask ten times," Jáchym Judl states.
Many Finns wear cotton face masks, but their use is not completely problem-free in an environmentally friendly way. The cotton mask must be used and washed 60 times to achieve as small a carbon footprint as washing and reusing a disposable mask, according to Judl.
"The gap grows even more if we look at the water footprint. A lot of water is used to produce cotton, so a cotton mask should be used to leave a huge 2,500 times smaller water footprint. “
The bottle can be hazardous waste
An empty hand disinfectant bottle, on the other hand, is usually plastic and should be recycled.
The good news is that more and more plastic packaging is ending up in plastic recycling. In 2019, about 42 percent of plastic packaging was recycled, and the number of recycled packaging has been on the rise.
The rest of the packaging plastic is thrown away as mixed waste, so about half of the hand-held disinfectant bottles sold end up in energy-producing incinerators along with face masks.
Hand sanitizer bottles are almost always recyclable plastic as long as they are empty.
However, if the bottle contains a flammable disinfectant, it is classified as hazardous waste due to the risk of ignition.
Disinfectant bottles are properly recycled by rinsing and placing them in a plastic waste container without a lid. This allows any residues to evaporate.
Source: The Nordic Page