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Expert: Estonia's biggest issue is 79 different waste management systems

Biowaste container.
Biowaste container. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The main issue facing waste collection in Estonia is that a different system is in place in each of the country's local governments, complete with its own requirements and sanctions, says waste management expert Rainer Pesti, who believes uniform nationwide requirements would make things easier.

As of this year, it is prohibited to throw categories of waste required to be collected separately into mixed municipal waste containers.

Pesti, whose experience includes working as business development manager at Ragn-Sells, explained in an appearance on Vikerraadio's "Vikerhommik" on Tuesday morning that in the simplest terms, biowaste is kitchen waste.

"Anything fit to eat is biowaste," he noted. Thus it isn't advisable to throw even plastic bags, bread bags, plasticware or paper towels labeled biodegradable in with other biowaste.

The expert reassured that no one will start getting fined January 3 already for incorrectly sorting their waste, but added that in the longer run, waste management companies will be sure to start checking whether biowaste has been sorted correctly and not thrown in together with the mixed municipal waste.

He added that in terms of imposing penalties, the focus should be on cases where people aren't sorting their waste at all, or throwing biowaste and paper waste into one container together, for example.

Hosts Taavi Libe and Kirke Ert commented that people often claim they've seen properly sorted waste dumped into trash trucks together, but according to Pesti, this is one of the biggest misconceptions about waste collection, given that it would be even more profitable for waste management companies to haul paper trash to waste disposal sites.

Garbage trucks, he explained, are split-bodied, and mixed municipal waste and biowaste are dumped into separate compartments of the vehicle accordingly.

Another confusing factor may be the fact that if someone has thrown biowaste in with packaging waste, i.e. recycling, then the latter can no longer be collected as recycling and is removed as mixed municipal waste instead.

Pesti believes that one of the biggest issues with waste collection in Estonia is the fact that there are as many distinct waste collection systems in the country as there are local governments, and that it would be easiest if 79 distinct systems were replaced with a single system implemented at the national level including uniform requirements, labeling and awareness of the consequences of incorrectly sorted waste.

Often cited as an example in Estonia is the neighboring Finland, which touts a more functional waste sorting system. The expert noted, however, that Finland, as well as Sweden and other parts of Europe, have had several more decades than Estonia to cultivate the necessary culture for this.

"We need time for this [waste sorting] culture to develop," Pesti said. "We as Estonians very much want to contest this, but we're not leading some kind of revolution here; rather, we're among the last in Europe who aren't doing this."

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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