Waste reform makes removing unsorted trash significantly more expensive

Recycling bins.
Recycling bins. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The cost of removing unsorted garbage will more than double if new rules by the Ministry of Climate are introduced. The government is trying to avoid having to pay heavy EU fines in the future.

The ministry is amending several laws including the Waste Act and the Packaging Act to carry out large-scale reforms. It aims to increase the amount of rubbish households recycle.

By 2025, the EU wants 55 percent of all household waste to be recycled, rising to 60 percent in 2030, and 65 percent by 2025.

Estonia is nowhere close to reaching the target. Data from 2021 shows that less than a third of household trash was recycled. The figure has been roughly the same for the last decade.

The ministry does not believe information campaigns or additional funding will solve the problem. Instead, it plans to change the law.

Municipalities could introduce waste disposal fees

In its draft development plan, the climate ministry acknowledges municipalities have repeatedly said they do not have the resources or funding to develop waste management systems themselves. Government funding is also in short supply.

In the future, the ministry thinks local governments could have the right to set fees that cover the costs of waste management services.

Sigrid Soomlais, head of the ministry's circular economy department, said it is thought these fees could be between two and four times as high as the current waste transport service fee for residents.

Soomlais said it is difficult to give an exact figure as cities and municipalities sort their waste differently.

"For those who collect a good amount of waste separately, not much may change, but for those who do not, the cost of waste transport will increase significantly. The price difference between a good sorter and a bad sorter should be three times as much," she said.

Scheme would be similar to collecting kindergarten fees

The exact price would depend on which services local governments use. For example, whether they cooperate with other municipalities, and how diligently waste is sorted.

Under the new plan, cities and municipalities would collect the waste fee similarly to the kindergarten or hobby education fees.

It could consist of fixed components, such as registration, billing, supervision and investments in collection facilities, and variable elements such as the amount of waste generated or type of collection.

Lower fees could be set for those on low incomes or vulnerable members of the community, the draft says.

Packing bins may become mandatory in busy areas

The ministry will encourage people and businesses to sort and recycle additional types of packaging. Data from 2020 shows it makes up approximately a third of mixed household waste and this has not changed since 2013.

The draft suggests introducing containers for packaging materials in heavily populated areas.

Sigrid Soomlais said discussions are being had about mandatory separate bins for glass, paper, and cardboard.

The Ministry of Climate believes the cost of collecting packaging waste will be borne by companies not households. The draft states companies must bear the costs and, according to the plan, they will reimburse cities and municipalities for the costs related to the collection of waste.

However, households may experience indirect costs.

"If more efficient separate collection of packaging waste leads to an increase in the cost of packaging waste management, the prices of certain products may increase, reducing the purchasing power of households," it says.

Carrots and sticks for hitting targets

While Estonia is obliged to meet Europe's targets, the current rules do not apply to the municipalities that actually carry out waste management.

The state plans to create recycling targets from 2025 where at least 55 percent of the total weight of household waste generated in the municipality is recycled.

Fines will handed out to those who fail to meet the goal.

"For example, if a local authority generates 10,000 tonnes of municipal waste per year, from 2025 it will be obliged to recycle at least 5,500 tonnes of municipal waste. If this municipality only recycles 4,300 tonnes of municipal waste, it will have to pay to the treasury a fee for not recycling 1,200 tonnes of municipal waste," the draft says.

These fees would then be distributed amongst cities and municipalities that hit the target.

Landfill will become more expensive.

The Ministry of Climate points out that dumping waste in landfills or burning it to create energy is currently a more favorable option than recycling, so it is necessary to reverse the situation.

Landfill fees have not been changed since 2015 and cost €30 per tonne. In 2021, almost a fifth of household waste was discarded in this way.

The ministry plans to significantly raise fees and match those in neighboring countries, in Latvia the cost is €90 and €80 in Finland.

"In order for recycling to turn out to be the more economically preferable way of handling, the deposit fee should be tripled, i.e. to 90 euros per ton," the draft reads.

The cost of incineration will likely rise as well.

Estonia threatened with hefty waste fines

Circular Economy Department head Sigrid Soomlais said if Estonia does not fulfill the EU's requirements, the European Commission has the right to initiate infringement proceedings.

If the violations continue, the Commission could file a lawsuit in the European Court of Justice.

Soomlais said even the smallest one-time fine would cost Estonia around €270,000. Additionally, a fine of €3,000 can apply for every day the violation persists. This would total €1.4 million per year.

The ministry's development plan will be completed at the start of December. It must then be approved. A draft law can start to be drawn up after that.


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Editor: Urmet Kook, Helen Wright

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