Microplastics – a risk to inland and marine waters in Finland

The state of Finland’s inland and marine waters has generally improved significantly over recent decades, thanks to effective water protection measures. But our waters are still under threat due to factors including microplastics, climate change, pollution loads from farms, and hazardous substances. Microplastic particles originate from sources including our homes and roads. The first fact sheet associated with the Finnish Environment Institute’s State of the Environment 2017 report, looking at the present state and future of Finland’s lakes, rivers and marine waters, has been released in relation to World Water Day (22nd March).

Photo: Maiju Lehtiniemi

Microplastics are tiny pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter. They break down so slowly that they can be a significant environmental problem when they end up in aquatic environments, for instance in releases of municipal wastewater or storm water. They enter municipal wastewater systems from sources in our homes including cosmetic and hygiene products, as well as fragments of synthetic textiles from washed clothes. Research conducted at Helsinki’s Viikinmäki wastewater treatment plant indicates that 99% of the microplastic in incoming wastewater can be extracted during treatment, but all this plastic ends up in sewage sludge, limiting its usefulness. One major source of microplastics in storm water is road traffic.  

“Of the 250,000 tonnes of waste plastic floating in the world’s seas, an estimated 10 per cent consists of microplastic particles,” explains Outi Setälä, senior researcher from the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE). “More than 322 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally in 2015, and this rate is expected to double by 2050. Plastics constitute a serious threat to the world’s waters, due to their abundance and their longevity. We still don’t have accurate data to tell us how much microplastic waste is generated by different sectors.”

Urban planning facing challenges due to microplastic emissions from traffic

The micro-pollutants generated by road traffic include large quantities of rubber and microplastic.  These particles are especially derived from vehicle tyres and the materials used for marking roads. A car tyre weighing about 8 kilos may lose as much as 10–20% of its weight during its lifetime.

Mechelininkatu in Helsinki is one of the busiest streets in Finland, with average traffic levels estimated at 21,000-35,500 vehicles per day during the years 2010–2015. Calculations indicate that such traffic levels generate as much as 4–7 tonnes of microparticles annually, on this street alone. A new local storm drain system is currently being constructed, which means that this material will soon be washed directly into a nearby sea bay.

Concentrations of microplastics in storm water can be reduced through comprehensive anticipatory planning, involving the use of favourable pipe and drain systems, for instance. New material and structural solutions may also enable storm water to be cleaned more effectively in future.

Business opportunities from new innovations

Several countries have already adopted legislative and economic measures to reduce microplastic pollution, targeting goods including cosmetic and hygiene products, with positive results.

It is important to tackle this problem in Finland too. This will necessitate various measures addressing different sectors. Cost-effective solutions may be found by combining experiences from other countries with Finland’s special expertise on biomaterials. Many solutions may involve using less harmful materials instead of plastic in a range of products. The global demand for such products should lead to considerable business opportunities. Wood-based materials are already widely used by Finnish companies in solutions for packaging and construction.

Finnish water protection successes – and new threats

SYKE’s State of the Environment 2017 report shows that 85% of Finland’s lakes have a good or high ecological status, but there are still many river stretches that do not yet meet such high standards. Overall, the state of aquatic environments in Finland has improved significantly in recent decades. Reductions in polluting emissions from pulp and paper mills are a good example of successful water protection measures. Phosphorus loads in treated municipal wastewater have likewise been effectively reduced, though when it comes to nitrogen removal some targets have not yet been achieved.   

Climate change and increasingly intensive land use both represent significant threats to aquatic ecosystems around Finland. It is expected that climate change will increase natural nutrient runoff into watercourses, as well as nutrient loads from farming and forestry. The agricultural sector is still responsible for a large share of the nutrient loads entering watercourses – in some areas as much as 80%. Actions to reduce loads from farmland have already been implemented, but they must be resolutely continued and enhanced.

In recent years chemicals, plastics, and problems related to water management at mining facilities have worsened the state of waters around Finland. There is still insufficient information on the combined harmful impacts of various contaminants including pharmaceuticals and other chemicals, as well as microplastics.  

SYKE has additionally produced a podcast about the present and future state of Finland’s rivers, lakes and marine waters, including an interview with the institute’s chief hydrologist Bertel Vehviläinen (in Finnish).  

The Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) will publish four fact sheets during 2017 focusing on different aspects of the state of the environment in Finland today and in the future, to mark the country’s 100th anniversary of independence. The next fact sheet, on the circular economy, is due to be published in June.

For more information


Senior researcher Outi Setälä, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE)
Tel. +358 295 251 635, firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi

State of the Environment 2017 review

Director, Freshwater Centre, Anna-Stiina Heiskanen, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE),
Tel. +358 295 251 162, firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi

Chief hydrologist Bertel Vehviläinen, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE)
Tel. +358 295 251 731, firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi


Communication specialist Vilma Hakala, Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE)
Tel. +358 295 251 857, firstname.lastname@ymparisto.fi


The state of the environment in Finland 2017


Press release:

Microplastics – a risk to inland and marine waters in Finland