Experts: Estonia needs a unified waste collecting strategy

Various types of waste dumpsters.
Various types of waste dumpsters. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In Estonia, 30 percent of household waste goes to the recycling, while 55 percent must be recycled in the European Union by 2025. Currently, local governments in Estonia independently decide how to organize their waste management, but experts say a nationwide consistent approach would be required.

Rainer Pesti, head of business development at Ragn-Sells, said that it is difficult for Estonia's population to adjust to global climate-related challanges due to the country's relatively clean environment and abundance of fresh air and forests. This is also reflected in separate waste collection, he said, as people keep asking whether it is really necessary.

Pesti said that in Estonia just 30 percent of household waste is recycled. "What is concerning is that this percentage has remained constant over the last 10 years, while the rest of the world has moved forward," Pesti said.

While in the rest of Europe, more than half of the waste generated at home is recycled, Estonia's sorting habits put it in fifth or sixth place in the European Union. "This shows that the sector is in need of renewal and reform. This is something we need to do urgently," he said.

Pest went on to say that for people to separate their waste it must be convenient. "Telling people to take their waste bags and hike around the city in search of a container no longer works. Home sorting solutions are needed," he said.

To do this, however, Pest said the entire waste collection system needs to be redesigned. At present, each municipality in Estonia has the right to decide on its waste collection system. This means that they decide whether, for example, packaging and bio-waste should be sorted separately. "A review by the National Audit Office in 2021 found that many municipalities do not separate waste and where they do, it is done by large housing associations rather than private houses," he said.

Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) representative Gaili Eding also said that a nationwide consistent waste management system should be implemented at the national level, "Not as it currently stands, with each municipality carving out its own solution."

After the sorting process has begun, Eding continued, there is nothing complicated about it: "You start with the simplest thing you can understand. I always give the example that if you have a glass jar in your hand, you know it is glass and you can put it in a glass container. The ones you understand, sort them out, and if you do not know, put them in the general waste. Step by step, awareness increases and people start making the right choices," she said.

Both Pesti and Eding refuted the idea that all waste is disposed of into a single track. Eding was referring to people who had personally witnessed the emptying of a packaging container into a general waste truck. It is possible that the driver noticed a big amount of household or construction waste in the container, meaning that the container's contents were spoiled. If such a container had been emptied into the packaging waste, the whole lot could have been spoiled. It is appropriate that this container be emptied by a standard household truck in such cases. "Such stories tend to spread because they give people a convenient excuse to avoid sorting," Eding added.

Pesti said that in Estonia, 30 percent of waste generated at home is recycled, 65 percent is incinerated and 5 percent is landfilled.

Estonia is the least landfill-active country in the European Union, he said. However, the fact that Estonia is one of the most incinerating countries is worrying: "We need to take the next step from the incineration phase to become a recycling country and society."

When it comes to who is responsible for collecting waste separately, Pest said that responsibility has been thrown over a fence for years. He thinks that everyone in the chain must accept responsibility. Producers should develop recyclable packaging. Consumers should recognize responsibility for returning the packaging to the container once they have purchased it. Finally, waste management organizations must invest in sorting technologies and robots in order to separate and recycle materials.

"I don't really like the word waste at all. We have to realize that what we buy in the shops and bring home in bags is actually material. It's our responsibility as consumers to make sure that when we buy these things to take home, we recycle them. So that they can be used in the production of new products," Pesti said. This is all the more important, he says, because the world is material-constrained and we are living in the midst of climate change. "We have until the end of this decade to make significant changes in consumption habits," he said.

According to Pest, Estonia has one of the cheapest waste management services in Europe. He explained that, as a rule, people in Estonia have only one bin where they can throw all their waste and it is taken away for a relatively low price. Pesti asked rhetorically why people should have any motivation to separate their waste.

"Those who sort now do so because it is part of their lifestyle and they take responsibility for their actions. The question is how to convince the remaining 70% to sort. Who will make the effort to change a routine if you say that by collecting packaging separately, one can save one euro? If I opt not to sort and instead use a convenience service, it must be costly," Pesti said.

Mixed materials

Milk or juice container is one kind of packaging that people wander about.  These are made from four or five different materials and these are quite resource-intensive to separate, Pest said.

A milk or juice carton goes into a packaging container and can be put there with a cap. The packaging should also be broken down, otherwise it takes up a lot of space.

While it is generally recommended to wash a juice or milk carton, Pesti says it is not important. It is enough to empty the packet. For example, if you scrape a yogurt pot with a spoon you don't need to rinse it, says Pest, because water is just as critical of a resource.

"I always advise people not to overthink it there. "We [at the waste management facility] will decide whether or not the cap needs to be separated, and we will rinse the containers anyway," Pesti said, 

There has also been a lot of talk recently about bio-waste. By the end of the year, every household should have a bio-waste container or composter. This is important because bio-waste accounts for 33 percent of the contents of the general waste bin. "Estonia will never achieve the recycling percentages we have committed to if we do not sort bio-waste," he said. "Estonia today recycles 30 percent of its waste, but by 2025, that number should rise to 55 percent. This will be impossible if bio-waste is not collected separately," he said.

If organic waste is collected in a plastic bag indoors, the bag should be later emptied out and discarded with the rest of the general waste. Pesti pointed out that biowaste is converted into compost or biogas. If they begin mechanically scraping out the plastic bags and the plastic breaks apart in the process, we will end up with unrecoverable chunks of plastic in the biowaste. It all reaches the fields.

"The question here is whether it is sustainable if we put biowaste in the fields that is full of plastic and micro-plastic pieces," Pesti said.

Glass, on the other hand, is a material that, according to Pest, can be recycled endlessly and this is being done well in Estonia. Glass is shattered, the fragments are melted and new bottles or jars are made. Glass containers can be left with lids on.

It is often said that the different components in the packaging must be separated, however Pesti said that it is acceptable if this is not possible. It will be removed during the processing anyway.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Kristina Kersa

Source: Raadio 2 "Pulss"

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: