This is what the future looks like

Honkajoki, a small village in Satakunta, Finland, is more significant than its size would suggest. The whole future of planet Earth is on display at Kirkkokallio ecopark in Honkajoki.

Text Timo Riihentupa, videos Tomi Glad

It says “Kirkkokallio” on the road sign.

A dark, narrow, and frost-bitten asphalt road snakes over the field into the forest, toward a destination that lies behind it.

We are in Honkajoki, a municipality of around 1,600 residents, which merged with Kankaanpää in the beginning of 2021. Pori is only an hour away, while Tampere can be reached in nearly two. Vaasa awaits in the distance a couple of hours away to the north.

There is no rush hour in Honkajoki: a small and remote village in northern Satakunta is not the centre of Finland, and certainly not the centre of our planet.

However, maybe it should be.

Curious minds from across the world have travelled this narrow road in the hope of seeing Honkajoki’s Kirkkokallio ecopark.

The future of the Earth is on display there.

“We haven’t found a similar entity to Kirkkokallio anywhere else in the world, but solutions such as Kirkkokallio will be much needed in the future. We simply have to develop better ways to utilise raw materials again and again,” says Kari Valkosalo, CEO of Honkajoki Oy.

Kirkkokallio ecopark is situated approximately two kilometres away from the centre of Honkajoki village.

Upon approach, a few wind turbines can be seen above the pine trees. Large greenhouses glow with yellow light ahead. Then you are met with factory buildings of various sizes, most of which seem to be connected with pipes.

That is what the future looks like at first sight, or rather, the Kirkkokallio ecopark. Not very futuristic, perhaps, but a book should not be judged by its cover.

“You can find circular economy frontrunners here at Kirkkokallio,” says Pekka Passi, CEO of the energy company Vatajankosken Sähkö Oy.

The Kirkkokallio energy park comprises seven different actors that operate in symbiosis with each other.

You can see the depth of this collaboration better when you follow the park’s energy streams. Energy is created for example when Gasum Oy feeds the biogas they produce into the Vatajankosken Sähkö power plant, where the gas is transformed into electricity, steam and heat. Wind power is also used in the area to produce electricity.

Gasum Oy’s biogas facility treats tens of millions of waste a year.

Wind power is also used at Kirkkokallio to produce electricity.

“Circular economy is about recycling natural resources and using them in a more sustainable way, as well as reducing the amount of waste. We should work together to keep our planet and its materials circulating.”

“The biogas produced from local biodegradable waste here at Kirkkokallio is a fully renewable and environmentally friendly fuel that can reduce full-lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90% compared to fossil fuels,” says Esa Eloranta, Plant Manager at Gasum Oy.

For example, electricity is distributed from Vatajankosken Sähkö Oy’s power plant to the area’s other companies. Electricity, steam, and heat are used by Honkajoki Oy and Landeli Group Oy’s plant at Honkajoki, among other companies. At Honkajoki Oy’s factory, meat industry by-products, i.e. slaughterhouse waste, are processed into sterile protein nutrients, bone meal, fertilisers, animal feed, and fat. Landeli Group manufactures meat products for consumers.

Gasum Oy refines biogas that is then delivered to Vatajakankosken Sähkö Oy’s engine power plant. Gas is refined into electricity, heat and steam at Vatajankosken Sähkö Oy’s power plant.

The material streams and energy created by the production processes of these companies are distributed further to be used by other companies in the area.

For example, Honkajoki Oy’s condensation heat is used to heat the facilities where KKK-Vihannes Oy and Honkatarhat Oy grow lettuce, herbs, and cucumbers. The wastewater produced by Landeli Group’s plant at Honkajoki is processed at Honkajoki Oy’s wastewater treatment plant, and its biowaste is taken to Gasum Oy.

“We use the other companies’ waste heat to heat our greenhouses, which makes our carbon footprint one of the smallest in Finland. It creates significant savings for us, naturally,” says KKK-Vihannes Oy’s CEO Ari Kulmanen.

A large portion of the area’s energy streams circulate from one plant to another like a perpetual motion machine: almost 100% of all raw material streams are recycled.

“At Kirkkokallio, one company’s waste is another’s treasure. In fact, ‘waste’ is a wrong word to be used in circular economy, because the goal is not to produce any waste. There are ways to reuse nearly every type of raw material, as long as there is the will and enthusiasm to look for them,” concludes Vatajankosken Sähkö Oy’s CEO Pekka Passi.

The crops farmed at Kirkkokallio’s ecopark make good use of the waste heat produced by the other operators in the area.

However, only some decades ago, circular economy was not a topic of discussion at Kirkkokallio.

Heimo Leivonniemi and Osmo Kallionniemi were fur farmers in the late 1950s. They drove across Finland and collected slaughterhouse waste to feed their fur animals.

After one particular workday, the pair pondered how they could make collecting waste easier. They came up with the idea of establishing their own slaughterhouse at Honkajoki. Maakunnan Liha Oy was founded in 1960, and the slaughterhouse was built a short distance away from the centre of Honkajoki village.

However, there was too much competition at the time: the company filed for bankruptcy in October 1963. The cooperatives of Itikka, OPL and SOT bought the insolvency estate’s property and equipment and established a slaughterhouse waste treatment plant called Honkajoki Oy in January the following year.

In 1983, Honkajoki Oy moved from its old premises to its current location in Kirkkokallio.

“The municipality has participated in Kirkkokallio’s development from the start. In 1983, the municipality appointed Honkajoki Oy a plot where they could build their new establishment,” says Ulla Norrbo, the former mayor of Honkajoki and the current development manager of the town of Kankaanpää.

It was the beginning of the circular economy hub that resides there today. Honkajoki Oy’s waste energy attracted greenhouse owner Timo Rapila to the location.

“Rapila recognised how Honkajoki Oy’s waste heat could benefit their cucumber crops financially as well. That was the beginning of collaboration between Honkatarhat Oy and Honkajoki Oy,” Norrbo says.

Slowly, one year at the time, Kirkkokallio expanded and attracted new innovative operators to the area.

There are ample construction opportunities at Kirkkokallio, which has enabled many companies to situate themselves optimally for collaboration with other companies in the area. Kirkkokallio’s slightly remote location has also been an operational advantage.

So far, Honkajoki’s small size has been a strength rather than a disadvantage. The residents of the municipality have made no complaints about the zoning or construction projects, so companies have been able to carry out projects on their planned schedule. In a small municipality, decision-making has been, and still is, straightforward, allowing companies to make investments quickly.

“The municipality has played a rather traditional role along the way: created zoning, offered plots to companies, built the required roads and municipal infrastructure, and offered consultation services for beginning entrepreneurs when needed. The municipality has been great at offering flexible and swift solutions while lending an attentive ear to the wishes of the entrepreneurs. When they have promised something, they have acted on those promises quickly.”

Most importantly, the area’s operators have played an active role in developing Kirkkokallio.

Companies have found ways to work together, have collaborated on projects and found synergy advantages in operating in the same area.

“We trust each other here at Kirkkokallio and move forward together,” says KKK-Vihannes Oy’s experienced CEO Ari Kulmanen.

That is the only way to create an ecopark like Kirkkokallio in its current form.

Lettuce, herbs and cucumber are grown at Kirkkokallio.

“This is a real win-win scenario.”

This is the opinion of Pekka Passi, the CEO of the energy company Vatajankosken Sähkö at Kirkkokallio’s ecopark. The other operators in the area agree with him: the close collaboration has proven successful in two different ways.

First, it is good for the environment. One of our planet’s global problems is related to overconsumption, based on our insufficient use of recycled materials. Non-renewable resources are often used for new things that are being manufactured.

All activities should become greener, no matter if the actor is an individual, an industry, or even a country as a whole.

“Responsibility is an important value at the moment. Here at Kirkkokallio, we are frontrunners in nearly every aspect of it,” says Honkatarhat Oy’s CEO Tomi Levonen.

Kirkkokallio is an example of how climate targets can be promoted, carbon dioxide emissions reduced, and goals of sustainable development reached on a local level.

Meeting the goals does not translate into financial setbacks for the companies at Kirkkokallio: saving the environment also saves money. The value of materials is maximised at Kirkkokallio, and the resources are used in the best way possible.

“Our collaboration has become closer over the years, which has brought some significant financial savings. All the operators in the area benefit,” points out Landeli Group Oy’s Director of Plant Operations Petri Natunen.

Landeli Group manufactures meat products for consumers.

The financial gain, along with the environmental benefits, is the magic word that arouses interest overseas as well.

“Before the pandemic, we had a lot of visitors from around the world. There is a significant need for entities such as ours, especially in industrialising developing countries. They may still burn or bury their animal by-products, for example,” says Honkajoki Oy’s CEO Kari Valkosalo.

They would not be able to establish a replica of Kirkkokallio, but the basic principle is the same for any kind of industrial hub: all production by-products are used, and nothing is wasted or taken to landfill. The waste energy and other process by-products in different forms are mostly reused in the production processes of the other companies in the area.

According to Valkosalo, Honkajoki Oy aims to take Kirkkokallio’s concept abroad.

Honkajoki Oy is Finland’s leading animal by-product processer.

Circular economy could be a valuable asset for Finland to export.

“Finland and Finnish expertise are trusted in these matters overseas. There is clearly a strong need for this kind of concept, but the other party is often faced with a need to change their way of thinking. A green mindset could create profitable business, and we act in a consultant-like capacity to help them when these concepts are taken elsewhere in the world.”

However, Kirkkokallio’s concept should be distributed closer to home as well. In Finland, other companies have much to learn from the circular economy hub established at Honkajoki.

Honkajoki Oy’s treatment and production processes are based on the principles of circular economy.

“Kirkkokallio’s operational model could be replicated in any other industry, and Finland as a country should be the frontrunner. This is the future at its best. Finland and the rest of the world could learn from Kirkkokallio and its operations,” says Honkatarhat Oy’s CEO Tomi Levonen.

Circular economy is a megatrend that is just getting started.

Vatajankosken Sähkö Oy’s CEO Passi says that companies are just starting to utilise waste heat, for example. Eloranta from Gasum Oy would like to point out that everyone in a municipality, from individual households to large industrial companies, can participate in a circular economy enabled by biogas.

“The same concept could be taken to ventures all over Finland. By providing zoning and offering companies an opportunity to build ecoparks of the future, and the government could possibly support these projects with their contribution,” envisions Petri Natunen from Landeli Group Oy.

Vatajankosken Sähkö Oy’s solid fuel power plant and the smaller engine power plant (on the background) produce steam, heat and electricity for Honkajoki Oy. Fuels come from local suppliers or have been collected from the area.

Kirkkokallio as an industrial area is an example for others to follow. It is a glimpse of a better future.

But what about the future of Kirkkokallio itself?

“It’s not finished. Kirkkokallio can and should develop and grow. I believe Kirkkokallio will become even more versatile in the future,” says Kari Valkosalo from Honkajoki Oy.

The operators at Kirkkokallio are still of one mind on the subject.

They plan to continue their collaboration on more energy-efficient circular economy solutions in the 2020s as well. Their goal is to reach even better energy-efficiency, with even lower emission levels.

It requires constant development and finding new innovative solutions.

“The sense of community pushes us to try harder. We are still looking for new ways to recycle materials between companies. Maybe the next project could be the large-scale recycling of carbon dioxide,” says Tomi Levonen from Honkatarhat Oy.

In the last few years, businesses in the area have made investments that have totalled EUR 100 million, and new ventures are being planned at a rapid pace.

There are already two 50-hectare solar power plants on the drawing board as well as one facility that will process peat into technical carbon. Work is under way to ascertain financing, such as the possibility of receiving support from the EU’s recovery assistance funds.

Kirkkokallio will remain ahead of its time.