EU Waste Reduction Week: How to end excessive consumption, limit waste?

Ülemiste Keskus shopping mall in Tallinn.
Ülemiste Keskus shopping mall in Tallinn. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

European Week for Waste Reduction (EWWR) concluded on the busiest shopping day of the year, Black Friday. What could help address over-consumption and excessive waste generation?

The EU fashion industry must become waste-free by 2030, and within three years, Member States must begin collecting textile waste separately, which cannot be incinerated or dumped in landfills. However, Estonia lacks textile recycling capacity and investment plans for a textile circular economy.

Commercial holidays and over-consumption

"Commercial" holidays that bring huge crowds of shoppers to malls worldwide exacerbate the problem of over-consumption – Black Friday, for instance, has been recently countered with a No Shopping Day campaign.

On Black Friday, which originated in the United States and is now gaining popularity in Estonia "people spend three times as much on computers, phones, smartwatches and headphones, you name it, than they usually do," said Joosep Saad, head of shopping at Klick Estonia, adding that "Black Friday is now the day to spend; shopping baskets are bigger than on Christmas."

What makes people buy more is emotional response to traditional holidays and companies are good at evoking that: "Christmas is a season when many philanthropic donations are made; and, of course, this is the time to get money out of people's hands via trade. /.../ So there are these emotional occasions or days that are exploited. During Black Friday, for example, there is a type of deficit effect – if you don't shop today, you are a terrible idiot because the goods will most likely be sold out tomorrow," Andres Kuusik, professor of marketing at the University of Tartu, said.

The emergence of Cyber Monday on a scale comparable to that of Black Friday has resulted in an increase in e-commerce, which, when paired with transportation costs, causes a larger carbon footprint.

The vast majority of what we buy today eventually ends up in landfills. Every year, the average European consumer discards approximately 11 kg of textiles.

"When we consider the role of producers and traders in this, we see that it is up to us, consumers, to find a way around it. /.../ Traders have no reason to hold back; after all, this is their source of income. The emphasis should be on incentivizing consumers, as it is easier to motivate saving money, with the added benefit of saving the planet," Kuusik said.

Non-growth market economy

How do you persuade people to buy less when, for example, our smart tools have a limited lifespan and become obsolete in a few years? Margit Keller, sociologist and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the University of Tartu, said that consumer responsibility alone will not resolve the over-consumption issue.

"There is no magic bullet to raise consumer awareness. 'Let's agree not to do shopping on Black Friday' – it can't be that simple," Keller said.

In this year's environmental awareness survey, the majority of consumers said yes, "buying and consuming should be reduced" and 43 percent of respondents supported abandoning continuous economic growth, she went on saying.

So, it is the economic system that needs to change: "The debate over a non-growth market economy is starting here in Estonia as well, she said.

"We are still living in an economic and social model in which we must grow and thus produce a lot and, as a result, consume a lot, or we end up in a recession, which means poverty and crisis," Keller said.

"This change requires a systemic shift in which both businesses and government must participate. Breakthroughs are happening today, and while it is unclear where they will lead us, it is unlikely that things will continue as they are," Keller said. 

Estonia buys more apparel than its neighbors

While it ranks average in Europe as a whole, Estonia is a compulsive consumer of apparel compared to its neighbors.

2020 Stockholm Environment Institute survey showed that Estonia consumes almost 16,000 tons of new apparel and textiles every year, which is 12.4 kilograms per person. The consumption of worn clothing and textiles is about 2.5 kilograms per person, or 3,000 tons nationwide. In total, Estonia consumes about 19,000 tons of textiles yearly, which includes fast fashion.

"Because the production process must be as quick as possible, fast fashion is produced with cheap labor, cheap materials and frequently using environmentally harmful components that contain large amounts of chemicals and synthetic ingredients," said Maria Kristiin Peterson, project manager at DiMa, the Estonian Academy of Arts' sustainable design and materials lab. "It is quickly manufactured, quickly brought to the market, quickly sold to the consumer and actually very quickly discarded to the trash."

Every year in Europe, 5.8 million tons of clothing and textiles are discarded, which equates to roughly one truckload of clothing every second. Only about a quarter of this is actually recycled.

"Even among kids, there is now a widespread perception that shopping is cool and fun," Tiia Plamus, materials technology program manager at Tallinn University of Technology, said. "How can we get information on the circular economy and sustainable development into schools and kindergartens? In terms of the consumption, this is now our biggest concern."

In order to reduce waste, the European Commission has proposed that by 2030, all new clothing should be created from durable and recyclable materials, even though there are currently no criteria defining material durability.

The fashion industry is the fourth most environmentally damaging industry, so the new regulation also proposes to ban the destruction of unsold textiles. The aim is to reduce over-consumption by also encouraging garment repair and reuse.

"Young people nowadays are becoming more interested in mending their own woolen socks. There is a growing repair culture, so it is not completely hopeless," Peterson added.

Estonia has no textile waste management plan, however the EU requires separating textile waste already beginning in 2025

Domestic textile waste will have to be separated from household waste after the rule takes effect in 2025.

Plamus emphasized, however, that Estonia cannot recycle textile waste, even if it would be collected separately: "If we were currently collecting textile waste separately, we would not have the capacity to recycle these post-consumer textiles in Estonia," she said.

Plamus said that cooperating with neighboring countries such as Finland, which has a textile recycling industry, could be a solution, but problems still exist.

"One of the most pressing issues is that even if we collect everything, crush it and recycle it, what should we do with it then? We are not talking about a few dozen kilos or even a few dozen tons here, but tens of thousands of tons," Plamus added.

"The truth is that deciding what to do with collected textiles is a really big question, as there are now no effective methods to recycle consumer textiles," Director of Environmental Management at the Ministry of the Environment Sigrid Soomlais said.

Most discarded textiles are now burned in incinerators, but separately collected textiles cannot be sent directly to landfill or incineration. At the same time, Estonia lacks the capacity to recycle them. The technologies needed for recycling are expensive, Soomlais explained, adding that we would have to cooperate on that with other countries on that.

"It is a widespread issue, but considering the practicalities, it makes little sense to transport this textile waste very far. So why not look to the Baltic States to establish a shared capacity for handling it?" Soomlais suggested.

In Europe, there are factories that shred fabrics, but they work on the principle that you have to find a use for the fibre, Reet Aus, professor at the Academy of Arts, adding that this requires investment in product development.

"We could choose one area to invest in - we don't have to do everything - but for the time being, we haven't decided on anything," Aus said.

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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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