As an EU member state, Estonia has vowed that by 2025, 55 percent of the country's waste must be recycled. No progress has been made over the past decade or so, however, and currently less than a third of waste is being recycled. If the situation doesn't improve, Estonia could be facing a waste fine totaling hundreds of thousands of euros.
The EU, including Estonia, set a target according to which by the year 2025, at least 55 percent of household waste should be recycled — with that figure rising to 60 percent by 2030 and 65 percent by 2035.
Meanwhile, the actual recycling rate has been stuck around 30 percent for years already. According to Statistics Estonia data, just 30.4 percent of waste was recycled in 2021; in 2016, five years earlier, it was a third of all waste generated in Estonia. The remainder is either burned or dumped in landfills.
"It is a scandal that the recycling rate in Estonia has stood still for years," said Harri Moora, senior expert at the Stockholm Environment Institute's Tallinn Center (SEI Tallinn).
According to Moora, it will prove very difficult if not downright impossible for Estonia to meet the EU's set target. He noted that if you look at other EU member states' experiences, it takes years to actually boost recycling rates. Estonia, however, now has to essentially nearly double its own within just two years' time.
Sigrid Soomlais, director of the Environmental Management Department at the Ministry of the Environment, said that the ministry is currently not yet preparing for possible punitive measures by the European Commission.
"There is always a chance that we won't manage to achieve this target, but right now we're working very actively to achieve this percentage," Soomlais said.
She explained that if Estonia doesn't comply with the requirement set out by the EU's Waste Framework Directive (WFD) in due time, then the European Commission will have the right to initiate an infringement procedure. Should Estonia fail to remedy the infringement during the course of the procedure or bring practices into compliance with requirements, the Commission can refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
According to the ministry official, the potential fine would consist of a basic amount as well as penalty payments. The basic amount is a one-time payment which for Estonia would be a minimum of around €270,000. A penalty payment, however, would be imposed for each successive day following the court judgment that the infringement continues — and is around €3,000 a day. This means that should this infringement continue for another full year, that would mean a fine for Estonia of €1.4 million.
"Multiply these days into years, and that's quite the considerable fine amount already," she acknowledged.
Pollution charges could encourage more recycling
Soomlais said that a key condition for recycling is that sorting waste is made as convenient for people as possible. For example, people should be able to sort recycling out in their homes already — i.e. at the source. On the other hand, she continued, people also need an economic incentive to sort their waste.
Officials at the Estonian ministry are already working on drawing up a broader package of proposals for the incoming new environment minister on how to achieve recycling targets. In addition to the local collection of recycling, the package also incorporates economic measures including increasing pollution charges.
The pollution charge for municipal waste disposal has remained unchanged since 2015. According to Soomlais, it would be very difficult for Estonia to achieve EU targets without increasing this fee.
"Then people would have a greater economic incentive to sort their waste," she explained. "If I sort [my waste] properly, it'll be cheaper for me. If I don't feel like sorting — provided all the [necessary] conditions have been provided by the local government — then I'll pay more."
Political will lacking to raise pollution charges
The Ministry of the Environment under the direction of then-minister Tõnis Mölder (Center) submitted a bill for a round of approvals in November 2021 already that would have boosted the current waste disposal fee of €29.84 to €90 per ton starting this year. In comparison, Soomlais noted, as of this year, the waste disposal fee is €95 per ton in Latvia and €80 per ton in Finland.
"That bill didn't find support at the time," she said. "In the past, governments have very much been on a tax peace wave as well, which has also made it difficult to increase or impose environmental fees."
Last year, the ministry also proposed an additional fee, dubbed the unrecycled waste fee, which would have applied to burning waste for energy production as well, for example. This proposal likewise did not find political support.
According to Moora at SEI Tallinn, increasing pollution charges would be a step in the right direction. He said that garbage pickup is indeed currently too cheap in Estonia and doesn't encourage people to sort their waste, but added that increasing pollution charges alone won't be enough.
"Increasing pollution charges for burning and disposing of waste will make the price of waste management go up; that will certainly spur people to sort their waste," Moora said.
"On the other hand, however, if the state doesn't improve the sorted waste collection system, raising pollution fees could instead lead to people saving on costs by simply dumping their trash in the woods instead," he warned. "It's been done in Estonia before."
Editor: Aili Vahtla